The problem was that Prince, a control freak, didn’t leave a will. He didn’t even have a cause of death — initial reports suggested an overdose of fentanyl, and recently unsealed affidavits and search warrants revealed painkillers were scattered throughout his Paisley Park home and studio. Dr. Michael Todd Schulenberg, who was treating Prince for hip pain, reportedly prescribed oxycodone intended for the artist to a close friend in the weeks prior to his death. After Prince died a year ago today, found in a Paisley Park elevator, his estate — including songs, videos, $25 million in real estate and 67 gold bars, among many other things — was said to be worth between $200 and $300 million.
Because Prince had no children, was divorced and his closest relatives were his sister, Tyka Nelson, and five half-siblings, the estate was in shambles from the outset.
“The minute I looked at it, there was nothing appropriately in place,” Charles Koppelman, a longtime record executive who spent much of 2016 as a music-business advisor to the estate, tells NPR. “Michael Jackson had no personal life, but his business life was in perfect order — he had the right record-company relationship, the right publishing relationship, and he had a will. Prince, on the other hand, had a great personal life, but none of those other things.”
Dozens of claimants to Prince’s fortune came forward immediately following his death, complicating matters for Kevin Eide, the Minnesota judge overseeing the shambolic estate. In what the New York Daily News called a “wacky lawsuit,” Rodney Dixon called himself the owner of all Prince’s songs and albums after the two supposedly had a discussion in Maryland in 1982. Marsha Henson claimed she and Prince drank wine at a Kansas City, Mo. hotel in July 1976, then had sex at another hotel — and nine months later, she gave birth to a son, Carlin Q. Williams, who asked for DNA testing to prove Prince was his father.
Even after the judge recognized six heirs — Tyka Nelson, Prince’s only sister, and his half-siblings Alfred Jackson, Omarr Baker and Sharon, Norrine and John Nelson — people around the world continue to try and prove a relation, however tenuous.
“Are there people crawling out of the woodwork constantly? Yeah,” says Jeffrey Scott, a St. Paul estate attorney with no relationship to the estate. “There was a deadline to step forward and submit a claim — and that didn’t seem to have affected people at all. I still have people offering to do DNA tests.”
Let’s take a look at how Prince’s estate evolved from chaos to (relative) order in the year since his death.
April 2016. Nelson convinces Judge Eide to appoint Bremer Trust, a Minneapolis trust company that occasionally advised Prince over the years, to take over the estate despite its lack of experience with rock-star holdings. One of Bremer’s first moves is to hire a locksmith to drill into Prince’s vault, then reseal it. “Only a couple of people know the combination,” says Frank Wheaton, an attorney (until recently) for Alfred Jackson. “The contents of the vault have been examined, catalogued and they remain confidential.”
June 2016. Bremer appoints Charles Koppelman and attorney L. Londell McMillan, who has worked with Prince, Michael Jackson and many others, to manage the estate’s entertainment assets. Koppelman contributed what he says today was “adult supervision.” McMillan described his closeness with Prince in court: “I not only treasure my personal relationship with him, but I also value the beauty of his personal creations.”
August 2016. Because Prince had fantasized about making the 65,000-square-foot Paisley Park a museum, Tyka Nelson prioritizes the conversion, hiring Graceland Holdings to launch it on October 6.
Joel Weinshanker, managing partner of the company that oversees Elvis Presley’s Graceland and a Prince fan, spends two months sorting out and preserving videos, tapes and 7,000 custom-made garments. “I saw a number of huge issues,” he says. “There was leaking all over the building — and [there were] priceless outfits strewn behind a desk. Even when outfits were on a rack, they were on wire hangers — which really gets anybody [involved] in the preservation of anything crazy.”
October 2016. Koppelman and McMillan make a deal with Warner Bros. Records, the label that released most of Prince’s classic material (and would be the target of his “SLAVE” protest in the mid-‘90s), to put out compilations of his best-known work. Prince4Ever, released in November, contains 40 well-known songs, plus the unreleased 1982 outtake “Moonbeam Levels.” A Purple Rain reissue, due in June, will reportedly have two full albums of previously unreleased music and two concert films. Matt Thorne, author of Prince: The Man and His Music, is underwhelmed by the first release but excited about the upcoming one. He also expresses concern that the estate’s lawyers are spending more time and energy posting on social media than properly repackaging Prince’s music. “I haven’t seen anything so far that made me think this is being handled brilliantly,” he says.
October 2016. Eide makes his ruling on Prince’s heirs, yet people continue to appear out of nowhere, including Claire Elisabeth Elliott, a 50-year-old Georgia woman who claims to have been married to Prince in a secret Las Vegas ceremony performed by a rabbi. Also rejected: two children of the late Duane Nelson Sr., whom Prince’s father considered a son and Prince addressed as brother. “Eide has been a most profound and proficient judge,” Wheaton says. “Alfred [Jackson] taught Prince a lot about music when he was very young. From church to home to school, Alfred had an early influence.”
January 2017. Koppelman and McMillan make another key deal, selling the rights to Prince’s unreleased music to the world’s biggest record label, Universal Music, for a reported $30 million. But the two administrators begin to attract harsh criticism. The Wall Street Journal reports claims they didn’t properly solicit bids from competing labels (which Koppelman would call “sour grapes”). Nelson and Baker accuse the pair of botching a four-hour October tribute concert, alleging McMillan and Koppelman kept profits that should have gone to the estate (something McMillan called “wildly and unethically false”).
Attorneys for Nelson and Baker criticize McMillan’s financial instincts and reliability in court, worrying that “he views himself in a substantially larger role.” Eide calls McMillan a “lightning rod” for estate squabbling. Steven H. Silton, attorney for Nelson and Baker, told the court: “We’ve had a lack of disclosure from Mr. McMillan about his ongoing financial interest in the estate’s music deals.”
February 2017. Eide appoints Comerica Bank and Trust as permanent administrator, replacing Bremer, which had little experience with major rock-star estates and was “in over its skis,” says a source close to the estate. Comerica reps wouldn’t comment. Also, Eide rejects McMillan and CNN commentator Van Jones, another longtime Prince friend and associate, from overseeing the estate as personal representatives.
February 2017. Warner posts Prince’s catalog — which is to say, some of his most beloved work, like Purple Rain and Sign ‘O’ the Times, not later, independent releases such as Emancipation — on Spotify, Tidal and other streaming services. His songs generate 4.7 million streams in the first two days.
April 2017. Comerica appoints Troy Carter — a veteran music manager who has represented Lady Gaga, John Mayer and Meghan Trainor and last year became Spotify’s global head of creator services — to serve as the estate’s entertainment advisor. Carter has no estate experience and is not a lawyer, but he’s smart and has a touch for creative deals — as a venture capitalist, he invested early on in Uber, Lyft, Dropbox and Warby Parker. Carter wouldn’t comment, but Thorne, the Prince biographer, calls him “a better choice than the previous representatives” due to his experience with other major stars.
The present. Although many questions remain about Prince’s final days — mostly dealing with what painkillers he took and who gave them to him — the estate has stabilized after a year of family squabbling and legal grandstanding. Warner will handle the classic stuff; Universal will handle much of the unreleased material as well as Emancipation and the other albums that came out of Prince’s later, independent period. Paisley Park is no longer in disarray: “Each item is in acid-free paper and should be in the same condition 125 to 150 years from now,” says Graceland Holdings’ Weinshanker. And the estate has relatively nimble management, give or take a few straggling family critics, with the heirs’ council working with Comerica to make music and business decisions.
The future. Aside from Warner’s upcoming Purple Rain reissue and the two dozen tribute concerts and dance parties this weekend in Minneapolis, the Prince tribute event calendar remains vague and mysterious. But just about all the players involved in his estate agree on one thing: It’s Prince himself, not siblings or lawyers, who gets to decide what happens. The Paisley Park museum, for example, plans to open a Lovesexy room based on notes Prince had scrawled out, complete with diagrams, during his life. “He wrote an amazing amount. It’s not about what we think. It’s all about his wishes,” Weinshanker says. “All we’re trying to do is articulate exactly what he wanted — and he was very specific.”