On Probate Politics and Personal Responsibility

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jackkerouacClyde Fitch, namesake of this website, died in 1909 at the age of 44. At the time of his death, he was arguably the most — certainly one of the most — popular, acclaimed, controversial and commercially successful playwrights in the U.S. These were the days before federal income tax, so when we discover that, between 1900 and 1909, he earned roughly $250,000 a year, it does makes one wonder what kind of money we’re talking about in contemporary terms. For fun and for ghoulishness, I ran some numbers on Measuringworth.com: We’re talking $5 to $6 million a year, every year. Well, Fitch died intestate — without a will. No wonder, according to my research, it took three or more years just for his estate, including a townhouse on East 40th Street, a mansion in Greenwich, Conn. and Katonah, N.Y., to be fully catalogued. As Fitch was an only child, his parents survived him, so it wasn’t a question of who his heirs were. It was a question of Fitch never being responsible enough to face the possibility of his own mortality. He was one of the most famous artists in the U.S. He traveled to Europe — the newspaper boys were there to record his departure and arrival. There were 62 plays, written over a period of 19 years, the vast majority of them generating substantial royalties. (In my research, I discovered that the last royalty check was issued in 1991.) And let’s not forget the huge collection of art and antiques. And how his parents, who were nearing or in their 70s in 1909, had to handle their grief while sorting all of the mess.

So, when I read today in the San Francisco Examiner, courtesy of the Associated Press, that the estate of Jack Kerouac had been recently litigated, the Fitch tale ran through my head anew. Read the opening graphs of the story:

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There are new questions about the estate of Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac after a Florida judge ruled that his mother’s will was fraudulent.

Gabrielle Kerouac left all of her son’s assets to his third wife, Stella Sampas Kerouac, when she died in 1973. Ever since, the Sampas family has had control of Jack Kerouac’s manuscripts, letters and personal belongings.

Jack Kerouac’s daughter, Jan, challenged the will in 1994, after seeing a copy and deciding the signature was fake. She died two years later, but Paul Blake Jr., the writer’s nephew, continued the litigation.

There are also all kinds of problems assessing the present worth of the Kerouac estate:

It’s unclear, however, how much the estate is currently worth and what action Blake might take. Wagner said that early in the litigation, they agreed not to question the Sampas family on what assets they still had. Previous estimates of the estate, which included Kerouac’s unpublished manuscripts, journals, thousands of letters and the St. Petersburg house where Kerouac lived when he died in 1969, have placed its value at about $20 million.

The Sampas family, the story goes on to say, hasn’t been a careful guardian of the Kerouac legend, or so it is alleged. The Examiner piece talks about various personal items of the writer being sold at very high prices — like a raincoat sold to Johnny Depp for a six-figure sum. Meanwhile, Blake, the writer’s nephew, according to the story…

has lived much of his life in poverty and has sometimes been homeless….he lives in a rented mobile home in Arizona that does not have a toilet.

So even with a will — be it Kerouac’s will or his mother’s will — the absence of precision can make real messes out of an estate.

The litigation involving the estate of Martha Graham — more precisely, the rights to her dances — also comes to mind. Here’s a great piece from the Times in 2007:

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…Lester Horton and Erick Hawkins died without leaving wills. José Lim√≥n had one but didn’t mention his works, which were divided among his heirs and sold back to the José Lim√≥nDance Foundation. Alvin Ailey left his dances to his mother and the rights to his name to his stepbrother. The Ailey board eventually bought back those rights. On his death in 1983 George Balanchine left his dances to several former dancers, not to his company, the New York City Ballet. An out-of-court settlement prevented a court battle, and a trust now controls the rights to his dances.

But it was only after the Graham case that most American choreographers really paid attention…

By contrast, there’s the wisdom exemplifies by the late Merce Cunningham’s Living Legacy Plan, though with the master’s death that clearly has some challenges of its own. But at least his intentions are absolutely clear.

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Similarly, even with the 27-hour opera known as the death of Michael Jackson, and all the news coverage surrounding his mother’s custody of the children with estate oversight by executors and the sniping between the sides, at least MJ was clear.

For then there’s an example of less ghoulish glitter: Dash Snow. Did the artist even have a will? I don’t think so — and there an ex-wife, a girlfriend with whom he has a child, and obviously wealthy parents. How ugly is that going to get?

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Or the death of Heath Ledger. His will was filed in 2003 — before he met Michelle Williams, before his child was born. His estate was left to his sister and parents. All the parties, more or less, have chosen to behave decently in the matter, but Ledger, given his income, simply didn’t think ahead.

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I’m all for artists and creative people being all artistic and creative. But if you’re successful, be smart about it. There is one tenet of the conservative philosophy that I think has great applicability here — in fact, I actually don’t think this is a particularly conservative idea so much as a classically American idea: personal responsibility. Get your wishes on paper and make it absolutely crystal clear. Whether the life of an artist ends early or late, what a terrible and needless waste for the legacy of a productive life to be dragged into the swirl of courtrooms. Get your affairs in order.

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