The Jackson family: where did it all go wrong?

The three years since Michael Jackson’s death have been marked by an increasingly acrimonious feud that is tearing his family apart. But how did it come to this

By: John Patterson/UK Guardian

Michael Jackson's siblings at hi smemorial service, July 2009

United in grief at Michael Jackson’s memorial service, July 2009: Janet, Randy, Tito, Marlon, Jackie and Jermaine

Inter-generational Twitter feuds, alleged abductions and the direst allegations of false imprisonment of an elderly parent; world-famous siblings embroiled in protracted legal battles that recall Jarndyce and Jarndyce; and at the centre of it all, at the eye of a ghastly familial hurricane, lies a musical legend – the foremost musical legend of the past 40 years – who at his death had accumulated debts nearing half a billion dollars but who now, after three years as a corpse, and thanks to astute management of his estate and back catalogue, will soon once more be awash in accountants’ black ink.

Even in his grave, Michael Jackson lies uneasy, as his survivors collectively do as much to dishonour his name as the overzealous Santa Barbara Police Department twice did with its controversial failed child-molestation trials in 1993 and 2003. We are a very long way from Gary, Indiana, from Hitsville USA and from Motown’s “Sound of Young America”. It makes you want to cry out: “Stop! In the name of love.”

On one side of this toxic contretemps are the Jackson family matriarch, 82-year-old Katherine Jackson – the one truly dependable and loving person in MJ’s life – and Michael’s three children, Paris, Prince and Blanket, who together are the King of Pop’s four principal legatees (along with a number of MJ’s favourite charities, which get about one fifth of the estate annually). Michael made a point of excluding his siblings and his abusive father-manager, Joseph, from his will. This did not sit well with some of those on the other side of the dispute – Jermaine, Rebbie, Randy, Tito and, latterly, Janet, but not LaToya, Marlon or Jackie. Many of them had been receiving allowances from their superstar brother for years – all of which stopped at his death.

Several of the aggrieved have sworn that Michael’s will could not have been signed in Los Angeles on the date the document bears since, they argued, their late brother was in New York on that day. Thus, they said, Michael Jackson died intestate. In the state of California this means that the deceased’s assets are portioned out by the state, not by the family’s lawyers, with these going first to children, then to parents, then to siblings, depending on which of them survives the deceased. Such a situation can become the focus of multiple lawsuits, frivolous or otherwise, much more easily than can a well-managed, properly willed estate.

This slender claim has been the basis for a family lawsuit (backed for a while even by Katherine) that was thrown out by first the Los Angeles superior court, then the California court of appeals and finally the California supreme court in the years since Jackson died. Why has the issue resurfaced now, and done so far more noisily than it did at the time of the comparatively low-visibility court cases?

The focus of the recent disputes has been the team managing the Jackson estate, legendary entertainment lawyer John Branca and Jackson’s friend, lawyer John McClain. Both were appointed by Michael as his executors well before his death, and he could scarcely have made a wiser choice. They have done a sterling job of turning Jackson’s estate into a functioning money-spinner once again, all under the consistently approving eye of California superior court judge Mitchell Beckloff. Now that Jackson isn’t buying up department stores’ complete inventories of furniture, renting out entire hotel floors, or taking ruinously expensive narcotic safaris to the outer reaches of the Physicians’ Desk Reference, expenditures have fallen off considerably. McClain and Branca meanwhile – two of the sharpest lawyers in modern entertainment, whose client base includes half of the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame – made a series of fantastically remunerative deals and licensing arrangements that have piloted the stricken estate from developing world debtor nation status to something approaching solvency.

And the money will not stop pouring in over the years to come. Jackson sold 35m albums in the 12 months after his death – as a wise man said, death really is a great career move – while the rehearsal film about preparations for the This Is It tour made $260m (£166m) worldwide during a limited two-week release. Jackson’s executors cut a lucrative deal allowing Pepsi to associate itself with the 25th anniversary reissue of the Bad album, and licensed the Jackson catalogue to Cirque de Soleil for its Immortal show, which has toured nationwide in the States and packed them in steadily at its home base in Las Vegas. These big moves and others, including album sales and the judicious exploitation of the Jackson-owned Beatles publishing rights, took the asset value of the estate from minus $500m to minus $25m in less than three years. It will only grow and grow. This is a Sinatra-sized musical legacy, at least in terms of cash, that will pay off for decades to come.

Katherine Jackson with some of her family, 2011

Announcing the Michael Forever tribute concert in 2011: Katherine Jackson with children LaToya, Tito, Jackie and Marlon.Apparently, though, the contesting siblings see the executors as a new avenue of attack. Their particular issue with Branca and McClain concerns the 10% they earn from the estate in their role as executors. That’s a pretty standard fee for managing a large estate, but that didn’t stop siblings Randy, Jermaine, Tito, Janet and Rebbie from writing to the executors last month and demanding their resignations. Never mind a court ruling that the period to challenge the will had expired; they claimed that it remained “fake, flawed, and fraudulent”, and that their brother had “despised” the executors while he was alive. Brother Randy later added a more startling allegation, claiming that “anyone who stands up to the executors is denied access to my mother”.Which makes the disappearance – if that’s what it was – of Katherine Jackson only days later all the more intriguing. It also brought the next generation of Jacksons, the children with no memory of Gary, Indiana, or Motown, into the picture. They are teenagers, so social media is their go-to avenue of communication, which troubles the older members of the scandal-prone, tabloid-catnip family. Jackson’s daughter Paris – the one with the Village of the Damned eyes – stepped up as her generation’s chatty, flying-thumbed representative in the feud. On 21 July, she tweeted: “yes, my grandmother is missing. i haven’t spoken with her in a week i want her home now.” And: “8 days and counting. something is really off, this isn’t like her at all. I wanna talk directly to my grandmother!!” And finally: “9 days and counting … so help me god I will make whoever did this pay.”The next day, several of Jackson’s siblings showed up at the gated community in Los Angeles where Katherine lives with the children. The LAPD arrived on the scene after a call about a scuffle in which the elder siblings, Janet, Jermaine and Randy, allegedly tried to confiscate the mobiles of the increasingly talkative teenagers. Randy and Jermaine seem to have come to blows with Trent Jackson, a cousin who works for their mother, in a scene that one anonymous witness likened to The Jerry Springer Show. The same day, Katherine was spotted by a photographer in Arizona, evidently very contented and healthy, giving rise to speculation that Jackson’s siblings had sent their mother there so as to better control the situation in LA. Instead, they had made it worse. The executors had already moved to have custody of the children signed over temporarily to Tito’s son TJ (Tito’s children get some support from the MJ will).Prince, Paris and Blanket Jackson, January 2012

The children at the centre of the feud: Prince, Paris and Blanket Jackson.Katherine, it emerged, was at a spa in Arizona, incommunicado, without her phone, iPad or a functioning TV, leaving her blissfully unaware of the endless spats unfolding in LA. Local police interviewed her at her daughter Rebbie’s home nearby and found no reason for concern, but LAPD investigators who later turned up to check on her were turned away, as Arizona is outside their jurisdiction.Jermaine issued a statement on behalf of the family, or whichever faction of it he is in: “No one is being ‘blocked’ from speaking with Mother. She is merely an 82-year-old woman following doctor’s orders to rest-up and de-stress, away from phones and computers. Everyone has been well aware of this within the family, but I would like to reiterate my reassurance to the outside world that Mother is fine. In the meantime, thank you for all your thoughts and concerns.”What do these confusing titbits and unsourced accounts add up to? The whole story is riddled with contradictions, competing claims and counter-claims, and speculative accounting about other people’s money. It is complicated by the fact that the Jackson family and all its tacky and embarrassing scandals can still, three years after Michael’s death, drive the worst elements of the tabloid press into an orgasmic feeding frenzy, causing them to rely on paid witnesses and disgruntled, possibly mendacious former employees – and when they are not at hand, simply to make stuff up. The tabloid narrative on the Jacksons was set in stone decades ago and no one wishes to upset that money-spinning apple cart of rumour, lie and innuendo. So when something with a grain of truth to it rolls around, like this story of which we really know very little that is utterly reliable, that grain of truth has to be painstakingly extruded from a veritable Sargasso Sea of misinformation. You have been warned.By: John Patterson/UK Guardian