At a contentious Minnesota state court hearing Thursday (Jan. 12), attorneys representing Prince’s likely heirs clashed over who should serve as the personal representative of an estate estimated to be worth between $100 million and $300 million and facing an imminent tax bill that could eat up nearly half that value.
The six prospective heirs agreed that Comerica Bank & Trust N.A. should step in for Bremer Trust, which has served as the estate’s temporary special administrator since shortly after the superstar’s death last April and chose not to stay on as the estate’s permanent representative. Judge Kevin Eide of the Carver County District Court, who is overseeing the probate proceedings, did not enter an official order appointing Comerica as permanent representative, but suggested that approval would come once the bank and Bremer reached an agreement allowing for a transition at the end of the month.
However, the heirs were sharply divided over whether the bank should be assisted in its duties by CNN commentator and nonprofit organizer Anthony “Van” Jones or veteran entertainment attorney L. Londell McMillan. Jones, who has the support of Prince’s sister, Tyka Nelson, and his half-brother, Omarr Baker, advised the musician on his philanthropic efforts and assisted with a 2014 Warner Bros. deal that allowed Prince to regain control of his music catalog. McMillan, who is backed by Prince’s four other step-siblings, was, along with industry veteran Charles Koppelman, named by the probate court a special adviser on the artist’s music holdings, and together they have struck several deals for the estate in recent months, including publishing and licensing deals with Universal Music Group and a new arrangement with Warner Bros. to issue previously unreleased material. McMillan also helped extricate the musician from his Warner Bros. deal in 1996.
Each camp of potential heirs strenuously opposes the other’s candidate for co-personal representative. Sharon, Norrine and John Nelson are concerned that Jones is currently serving as one of the attorneys for Baker and Tyka Nelson and also that he lacks what they refer to in court documents as “experience negotiating or administering music contracts.” Attorneys for Nelson and Baker not only question McMillan’s “current contractual and personal relationship” with their step-siblings, according to court filings, but with the fact that "We've had a lack of disclosure from Mr. McMillan about his ongoing financial interest in the estate's music deals," Baker’s attorney Steven H. Silton told the court.
Judge Eide expressed no preference for either candidate, but laid out criteria for his eventual selection. “The court does not need another dissenting voice,” he said. “The court is not looking for someone who is looking to seek headlines for themselves, but someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work.”
Prince died April 21 last year of an accidental overdose of the painkiller fentanyl. Because he apparently left no will, Judge Eide and Bremer spent much of 2016 fielding numerous claims from people insisting they were related to Prince, few of whom presented a strong enough case to even warrant genetic testing. At the hearing, the judge quashed rumors that he would be making a formal determination of heirs at this time, saying there were numerous pending appeals that must first be decided. But he said the estate would likely be divided between the six people listed on the initial filing with the court: sister Tyka Nelson and half-siblings Sharon Nelson, Norrine Nelson, John Nelson, Omarr Baker and Alfred Jackson. “All other applicants for heirs have been legally excluded by the court of will shortly be excluded,” the judge said.
When Bremer’s initial appointment ended in November, the bank told Judge Eide it did not wish to stay on as the estate’s permanent representative, though it agreed to an extended temporary appointment while a successor was chosen. Bremer has since filed an inventory and accounting of the estate’s assets that not only listed a dozen properties in Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs, but also revealed that Prince had invested in 67 10-ounce gold bars, worth about $840,000, and that his companies held on to $6 million in cash.
As part of wrapping up its involvement with the estate, Bremer presented that inventory and accounting at the court hearing, where the bank’s representatives met with sharp questioning from Silton, Baker’s attorney. Silton seemed concerned that McMillan had provided the bank with inaccurate information, and he attempted to use this opportunity to question McMillan’s competence and trustworthiness. The judge cautioned the attorney when he edged close to revealing confidential business information the court had kept under seal, including a reference to “a $7 million guarantee” made to some undisclosed party as part of an October tribute to Prince in St. Paul.
Both Jones and McMillan were allowed to testify on their behalf, each candidate presenting his background, qualifications and, in both cases, a rather poetic description of his relationship with Prince.
Jones testified that he first became acquainted with Prince when his organization received an anonymous check that he eventually traced back to the superstar. He touted his experience brokering bipartisan action in Washington, D.C., and his familiarity with cutting-edge technology. He also claimed a familiarity with Prince’s sensibility that would help him avoid “deals that cheapen the brand,” saying, “I think I have a little bit of a sense of what Prince’s secret sauce was.”
McMillan stressed his extensive background as an entertainment law negotiator and related how he met Prince in the early '90s when the artist had written “slave” on his cheek to protest his contract with Warner Bros. After McMillan helped Prince sever ties with that label, he worked with the artist for another 13 years, with his relationship “evolving” from lawyer to confidante, he said. “I lasted so long because I let his will [desires and determination] drive the deals,” McMillan said. “We changed precedent in the music industry.”
Prince’s half-sister Sharon Nelson also testified on behalf of McMillan, saying the heirs needed an individual co-permanent representative to act as a go-between with the larger financial institution. Nelson, who is also a singer, said that although McMillan was her business adviser, he would not help her career in his capacity as an estate administrator. Judge Eide closed the courtroom to the public and the media at one point to allow for further questioning of McMillan that addressed confidential matters.
In the weeks leading up to the tax deadline, Koppelman and McMillan have helped Bremer license many of Prince’s assets in order to generate the cash needed to pay the bill. The estate reached an agreement with Warner Bros. in October, which made possible the greatest hits package Prince 4Ever and the deluxe Purple Rain reissue slated for this year, and entered into a deal in November making Universal Music Publishing Group the exclusive publishing administrator for Prince’s catalog.
Similarly, sources tell Billboard that a possible deal with streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music is expected to close in time for this year’s Grammy Awards. Earlier this week, the estate announced a global licensing deal for merchandise and branding with Bravado, which is also part of the Universal Music Group, and on Wednesday, Irving Azoff's performing-rights organization Global Rights Management announced that it has signed a deal with Bremer to represent Prince's entire catalog globally.