Since Jan. 31, the day that Bobbi Kristina Brown was found face-down in the bathtub of her Roswell, Ga., townhouse, the world has focused on what led up to the tragedy, which eerily paralleled her mother Whitney Houston‘s drowning in 2012. Less attention has been focused on what becomes of the singer’s estate.
Unconfirmed reports point to a battle between the Houston family and Whitney’s ex-husband, Bobby Brown, over whether to remove Bobbi Kristina, 22, from life support — framed as a clash over religious values and the sanctity of life. Beyond moral considerations, however, there are tens of millions of dollars playing a behind-the-scenes role in the conflict.
When Houston died in a Beverly Hills hotel room at age 48 — which the coroner attributed to a combination of heart disease and cocaine use — her legacy as one of history’s most successful recording artists was undeniable. But while she earned an estimated $250 million throughout her career, Houston’s fortune had dwindled after a decade-long decline into drug dependency and marital woes. Media reports shortly before her death claimed that mentor Clive Davis had to loan her $1.5 million to finance a stint in rehab.
She had also been locked in a very nasty battle with her stepmother, Barbara, over her father’s million-dollar life insurance policy, which he had left to Whitney upon his death in 2003. The fact that she was fighting over such a relatively small sum indicated to many that she desperately needed the money.
Houston’s spiral is often compared to that of another late pop star, Michael Jackson, whose demise likewise was fueled by addiction and profligacy, owing almost a half-billion dollars to Sony and the IRS at the time of his death, despite earning more than $1.1 billion during his adult solo career. But while Jackson’s estate has generated $700 million in revenue since his 2009 death, Houston’s posthumous earnings are relatively meager. Houston didn’t write most of her material, so her estate isn’t entitled to lucrative songwriting and publishing royalties. What is her estate worth? Closer to $20 million, say sources.
As Houston’s only child, Bobbi Kristina was named sole heir, yet the will was structured in such a way that she would receive her inheritance in installments with the remainder placed in a trust. Ten percent would be paid on her 21st birthday and an additional 25 percent when she turned 25. The remainder would be due on her 30th birthday. That’s where things get complicated.
The first installment — likely more than $2 million — came due when Bobbi Kristina turned 21 in March 2014. With three years to go until the next benchmark, the question remains, what happens to the balance of the funds if she dies before turning 30?According to Houston’s will, the funds revert to Bobbi Kristina’s estate. As the next of kin to Bobbi, her father, Bobby Brown — who has squandered his own sizable fortune — would then inherit any monies received to date. However, the will also dictates what would happen if Bobbi Kristina dies unmarried before the age of 30: The undistributed portion of the estate would go to Houston’s living relatives, which include her mother, Cissy, and two brothers.
This seemingly innocuous provision is more problematic than it appears, because Bobbi Kristina’s longtime boyfriend, Nick Gordon, has claimed the two were married in January 2014 and even posted photos of the couple sporting wedding rings. If that’s true, this would make him her sole heir. According to sources, the two were never married and, in fact, she planned to end the engagement. However, there is still a remote possibility that Gordon may produce evidence of their wedlock. “It could get quite messy,” says a person close to the Houston family. “There’s a lot of money at stake. The last thing the family wants to see is Whitney’s estate get in the wrong hands.”
“This [kind of family squabble] never happens — except all the time,” says Michael Sukin of Sukin Law Group, who has represented the estates of George Gershwin and Elvis Presley. The case would be “pretty straightforward” if the parties could appoint a single guardian. However, “if other parties get involved and requests are made for approvals — good luck.”
Today, Bobbi Kristina’s brain damage, which Cissy has described as “irreversible,” confines her to a rehab facility in Atlanta. The quality of that life remains in doubt. Still, the Houstons and Brown continue to pray at Bobbi’s bedside for a medical miracle, even as Cissy said in March that “there is not a great deal of hope.”
Journalist Ian Halperin has written seven books, including 2009’s Unmasked: The Final Years of Michael Jackson (Tantor Media) and the just-released Whitney & Bobbi Kristina: The Deadly Price of Fame (Gallery Books).
This story originally appeared in the June 27 issue of Billboard.