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
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.