It’s been over four years since world-famous R&B singer Whitney Houston was found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel on the eve of the 2012 Grammy Awards. Now, another awards show organization – the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences – is suing an auction house representing Houston’s estate to block its sale of an Emmy Award won by Houston in 1986. Which raises an interesting legal question in the world of estate planning law: will your estate be forced to return property upon your death?
The lawsuit against the auction house requests a temporary restraining order to block the sale of the Emmy, which is predicted to sell for at least $10,000, and has requested a jury trial and unspecified damages to resolve the dispute. The lawsuit claims that Houston signed a stipulation that prevented her from selling the Emmy award she won for her 1986 performance of “Saving All My Love For You” on that year’s Grammy Awards telecast, when Houston was 22 years old. A lawyer for the auction house said that the Academy has refused requests for proof of the contract that Houston allegedly signed. The lawyer also indicated that over 40 Emmys have previously been sold at auction and the Academy has not previously raised an issue.
Contracts Can Override the Contents of a Will
Without getting into the specifics of the Houston lawsuit – and it’s not clear that those specifics are even known between the parties as the complaint was just filed – the basic question at issue is whether a legally valid and enforceable contract is in place which might override the succession of a person’s assets through a will or in intestacy proceedings (for what it’s worth, Houston did create a will in 1993 leaving all of her assets to her daughter, who later died at age 22 last year).
The short answer is, yes, in many cases, a properly executed contract can and will override the provisions made in a will. For example, if you enter into a contract to give your car to a friend two years from now, and you die next year leaving your car to your daughter, a probate court will likely consider the car to now be gone from your estate, and your daughter will not be able to claim the car (although the money that was paid for the car might still be a part of the estate and available to the daughter). Thus, if it is true that Houston signed a contract in 1986 indicating she or her estate would forfeit her Emmy if a sale was attempted, then a court might well find for the Academy, even if she had left the Emmy to her beneficiary in her will.
Estate Planning is More Than Just Creating a Will
The Houston lawsuit is a good reminder that properly planning for how your estate will be distributed upon your death is not just a matter of listing your possessions and deciding to whom they should go. You need to do a full evaluation of all applicable contracts and agreements that might be in place affecting your property. Such agreements can include:
- Sales agreements
- Purchase agreements
- Partnership agreements
- Prenuptial agreements
- Stock agreements
A good estate planning attorney will help you get a comprehensive picture of how such agreements affect your ability to distribute your property in a will or trust. For questions on your estate planning issues, contact Pasadena estate planning attorney Christopher B. Johnson today.