Got a ‘Blended Family’? Learn From Tom Petty’s Mistakes: His Daughters and Widow Are Now Locked In Battle Over His Estate

Filed under Blended Family, Estate Planning, Estate Planning Blog, Family, Family Values | By

This week Tom Petty’s daughters escalated the battle over their late father’s estate by filing a lawsuit against Petty’s second wife that seeks $5 million in damages. In the lawsuit, Adria Petty and Annakim Violette, claim their father’s widow, Dana York Petty, mismanaged their father’s estate, depriving them of their rights to determine how Petty’s music should be released.

Petty died in 2017 of an accidental drug overdose at age 66. He named Dana as sole trustee of his trust, but the terms of the trust give the daughters “equal participation” in decisions about how Petty’s catalog is to be used. The daughters, who are from Petty’s first marriage, claim the terms should be interpreted to mean they get two votes out of three, which would give them majority control.

In April, Dana filed a petition in a Los Angeles court, seeking to put Petty’s catalog under control of a professional manager, who would assist the three women in managing the estate’s assets. Dana alleged that Adria had made it difficult to conduct business by acting abusive and erratic.

Since Petty’s death, two compilations of his music have been released, including “An American Treasure” in 2018 and “The Best of Everything” in 2019. Both albums reportedly involved intense conflict between Petty’s widow and daughters, over “marketing, promotional, and artistic considerations.”

In reply to the new lawsuit, Dana’s attorney, Adam Streisand, issued a statement claiming the suit is without merit and could potentially harm Petty’s legacy.

Destructive disputes
The fight over Petty’s music demonstrates a sad but true fact about celebrity estate planning. When famous artists leave behind extremely valuable—yet highly complex—assets like music rights, contentious court disputes often erupt among heirs, even with planning in place.

The potential for such disputes is significantly increased for blended families like Petty’s. If you’re in a second (or more) marriage, with children from a prior marriage, there is always a risk for conflict, as your children and spouse’s interests often aren’t aligned. In such cases, it’s essential to plan well in advance to reduce the possibility for conflict and confusion.

Petty did the right thing by creating a trust to control his music catalog, but the lawsuit centers around the terms of his trust and how those terms divide control of his assets. While it’s unclear exactly what the trust stipulates, it appears the terms giving the daughters “equal participation” with his widow in decisions over Petty’s catalog are somewhat ambiguous. The daughters contend the terms amount to three equal votes, but his widow obviously disagrees.

Reduce conflict with clear terms and communication
It’s critical that your trust contain clear and unambiguous terms that spell out the beneficiaries’ exact rights, along with the exact rights and responsibilities of the trustee. Such precise terms help ensure all parties know exactly what you intended when setting up the trust.

What’s more, you should also communicate your wishes to your loved ones while you’re still alive, rather than relying on a written document that only becomes operative when you die or should you become incapacitated.  Sharing your intentions and hopes for the future can go a long way in preventing disagreements over what you “really” wanted.

For the love of your family
While such conflicts frequently erupt among families of the rich and famous like Petty, they can occur over anyone’s estate, regardless of its value. When planning your estate, make sure to work with an attorney who’s willing and able to make an effort above and beyond simply drafting legal documents for you. That alone can dramatically reduce the chances of conflict over your estate and bring your family closer at the same time. And if you have a blended family (meaning children from a prior marriage), take your time and do things right so your family doesn’t end up bitter and embattled, like Tom Petty’s.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,