In the wake of Michael Jackson’s untimely and – as it turned out, unlawful death on June 25, 2009, for which Dr Conrad Murray is currently serving time for Involuntary Manslaughter – Jackson’s will has long been a source of dispute between his family and the Executors of his Estate.
Now the gloves are off, and a full scale war between the two camps is out in the open.
A blistering letter signed by several Jackson’s siblings –including Janet, Randy, Jermaine and Tito – accusing Estate executors John Branca and John McClain of fraud, exploitation, conspiracy and abuse, was sent to the executors and – somehow – leaked to the media on Tuesday June 17.
The letter pulls no punches and – interestingly – alleges details about Branca not mentioned in the public domain before.
“John Branca, when we called you regarding the Will you didn’t want to interrupt your vacation,” the letter states. “You said you wouldn’t return for four days, at which time you presented to our family an incomplete Will.”
Jackson’s siblings continued,
“The Will that you presented did not have our brother’s signature on it, nor did it have a signature page attached to it. When asked about the missing signature page, John Branca replied, ‘it was on its way, and you were having just a little problem finding it.'”
“Amongst many other inconsistencies in the Will, there is also a conflict around Michael’s location on the day he supposedly signed the Will, July 7, 2002. We have evidence that undoubtedly supports and proves that Michael was absolutely not in Los Angeles, California, on the date of his signature reflected in the Will at-hand.”
“At the time we couldn’t possibly fathom what is so obvious to us now: that the Will, without question, it’s Fake, Flawed and Fraudulent.”
The whole letter can be read here.
In short: The executors are accused of knowingly profiting from a fake will. Further, that Michael Jackson was not in Los Angeles on the day he was supposed to have signed the will on July 7, 2002. In addition, Jackson’s brothers and sister say their late brother told them that he “despised” the two executors and didn’t want them handling his business affairs.
Forbes also note,
“The letter states that Branca and McClain lied and took advantage of their 82-year old mother, managing to get her to agree to increases in their percentage fees from the gross income of the estate. They claim to be considering retaining a well-respected law firm, Baker Hostetler, who advised them of potential criminal misconduct by the executors.”
In response the Estate executors released a statement, part of which said,
“Any doubts about the validity of Michael’s will and his selection of Executors were thoroughly and completely debunked two years ago when a challenge was rejected by the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the California Court of Appeals and, finally, the California Supreme Court […] We are saddened that false and defamatory accusations grounded in stale Internet conspiracy theories are now being made by certain members of Michael’s family whom he chose to leave out of his will.”
However, careful reading of the opening lines of this statement by the Estate, reveal the first part of it as not strictly correct.
As Andy and Danielle Mayoras (Probate experts and authors of Trial and Heirs: Famous Fortune Rights), writing for Forbes explain,
“However, this raises an interesting point regarding the executor’s statement. Because Joe did not have standing to bring his challenge to court, and because Katherine withdrew her claim before it was ruled on, no judge has ever decided the issue of whether Michael’s will was valid or not. In other words, Branca and McClain’s statement in response to the Jackson siblings’ letter was somewhat misleading.”
In even simpler terms, this means when Judge Mitchell Beckloff rejected Joe Jackson’s legal challenge, he did so because Jackson Sr was not a beneficiary to the will and had no legal standing to challenge – not because of any ruling about the authenticity of the will itself.
While it can’t be denied that under Branca and McClain the Estate has prospered – Jackson died with around $ 500 million worth of debt (Note: But with assets of around $ 1 billion), by 2012 the Estate returned a reported $ 475 million in profit – the fact that the Estate now enjoys financial health is not in dispute.
What is disputed is the validity of the will itself and the integrity of John McClain and John Branca.
Few probably remember this, but on July 1, 2009, when Jackson’s disputed will was first filed in Los Angeles Superior court by McClain and Branca, their rushed bid to take immediate control of Jackson’s fortune was denied.
Two days before that filing by the now-executors, Katherine Jackson was named temporary guardian of the children and administrator of the estate until a July 6, 2009 hearing. On July 1, 2009, Branca and McClain effectively asked the court to immediately appoint them executors and overturn Katherine Jackson’s temporary administration of the Estate.
At the time Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff said, “I understand your argument that there was a race to the court house. It seems to me that we should know by Monday if there’s another will out there.”
That Monday came and went without another will ever surfacing. None of which, of course, means the 2002 will is invalid – or valid for that matter. However, it is worth noting the speed at which Branca and McClain were moving.
The terms of the will distribute Jackson’s assets to a separate legal entity – the “Michael Jackson Family Trust.” This Trust benefits Jackson’s mother, three children, and unspecified charities.
But according to the Mayoras and perhaps other legal observers,
“The entire document is far from the quality one would expect from any experienced estate planning attorney. Usually, wills and trusts of this nature are prepared and signed together. And estate planning documents prepared for someone of Michael’s wealth and status are almost always much more comprehensive and well-planned than Michael’s will and trust.”
“Certainly there are a number of questions that would be very interesting to see explored through a lawsuit brought by people who actually do have proper legal standing. It may be that there are legitimate explanations for the question raised by the Jackson family. Perhaps someday it will all play out in court.”
It may be that Prince Michael Jackson, the oldest of Jackson’s children, will do exactly that. Now 15-years-old, in just three years he will be 18 and able to challenge the will – and the executors.
Seeing as Branca and McClain currently enjoy a specially negotiated arrangement that allows them to earn 10% on nearly every deal they broker for the Estate as well – as their fees as Executors – some might say that day can’t some soon enough.
Prince, Paris and Blanket honor their late father Michael Jackson at Grauman’s Chinese theater on January 26, 2012