When Dickens and Prince come together

This month’s column is about the novelist Charles Dickens, and the artist formerly known as Prince.

Yes, there is a connection. Bear with me.

Dickens, as you may know, wrote a novel called “Bleak House.” It followed the travails of a group of people connected to a chancery suit (what we would call a “probate case” in America) which has dragged on and on for generations, sometimes ruining the heirs who keep expecting it to be resolved at any time. Because of Bleak House, Dickens is credited with helping to bring about reform of the chancery courts in England.

Because, you see, Bleak House wasn’t some ridiculous fantasy. Probate cases really did drag on for interminably long periods. In fact, one of the real cases Dickens used as inspiration was even worse than his fictional case.

William Jennens, known as the “Acton miser,” was the richest commoner in England when he died, unexpectedly, while walking down the street in Suffolk. In his jacket pocket was a will, drafted by his lawyer. But he hadn’t signed it yet. He just needed to get back over to the lawyer’s office and sign it, for it to be fully legal. It was too late; he was dead.

And now the legal wrangling began. Mr. Jennens, you see, didn’t have a wife or children, and his relatives were somewhat distant and uncertain. Some of them were in far-off Virginia, which was now part of the new United States. There weren’t good records of who his relatives were. And so the case dragged on and on.

When Dickens published Bleak House, the Jennens estate case had been going for an astonishing 55 years. But it continued even after that, finally ending after 117 years. And (spoiler alert!) it ended just the way its fictional predecessor in Bleak House ended: the costs and attorney fees had eaten up the entire estate, so there was nothing left for the heirs to fight about.

Fast forward about a hundred years: recently the rock star who went by the name Prince died from an accidental medication overdose. Not only was he a multi-hit performer, he wrote and produced numerous hits for other performers. His estate, once calculated, is expected to be extraordinarily large. There are a lot of royalties and, unlike some performers, Prince did not spend ostentatiously.

Like every other state, Minnesota, where the case is being decided, has an “intestacy law.” Alaska has one too. An intestacy law determines, when there is no will, who is entitled to the estate. And Prince left no will.

He was twice divorced, and his only known child had died before him. Almost immediately, young people came out of the woodwork, claiming to be his illegitimate offspring. So far, DNA testing has failed to find a wild oat that sprouted, but there may be more such claimants to come.

He also had an alleged third wife, or at least a woman who said she was. At this point the judge has thrown that claim out for insufficient evidence; no word on whether she’ll appeal.

But those aren’t the only legal issues. Prince had a half-brother, sort of. The gentleman wasn’t biologically a son of Prince’s father and there was no adoption, but somehow Prince’s father ended up on the birth certificate. It isn’t clear, under Minnesota law, whether this fellow was legally Prince’s brother or not. If he is, his children (the alleged brother died in 2011) are entitled to a share of a very large estate, as that would make them Prince’s niece and nephew.

By now the connection should be clear: both Prince, and the man who inspired a Dickens novel, died without a will, leaving substantial estates which will mostly enrich lawyers. And the moral of the story should also be quite clear: at the very least, aside from whatever else you might need, you should have a Last Will and Testament in place.

Kenneth Kirk is an attorney and estate planner in Anchorage. This article should not be taken as legal advice; for specific legal advice you should consult an attorney.