An estate executor or administrator has the fiduciary duty to locate and collect the decedent’s assets. This obligation is paramount in protecting the beneficiaries’ interests and maximizing the distributions that they will receive upon the settlement of the decedent’s estate. Queens estate lawyers and Brooklyn probate attorneys are familiar with the various steps that estate representatives should take to identify these assets. Items such as bank accounts, real estate, stocks and bonds and other investments that are owned by a decedent are fairly easy to identify and to collect, liquidate and deposit into an estate bank account. Other assets may not be so easy to recognize or to get control over. For example, a decedent may have ownership in copyrights, trademarks and patents. Another interesting property interest may involve what are known as publicity rights. These rights which are recognized in a number of states but not in New York allow a person’s estate or heirs to retain the right to commercially exploit the person’s celebrity after death. The post-death marketing of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson has generated vast sums of money. There have recently been a number of cases dealing with these rights. In an article by Eriq Gardner in hollywoodReporter.com on January 29, 2014 entitled “Jimi Hendrix Estate Wins Appeal Over Unlicensed Merchandise“, it was reported that a Federal appeals court issued a ruling expanding the enforceability of publicity rights. In the case of Jimi Hendrix, even though the rock star’s estate was based in New York which state does not recognize these rights, the Court stated that the estate could take advantage of Washington state’s laws that have broad protection of publicity rights with regard to a dispute in Washington state.
Another interesting rights battle was reported by Eriq Gardner at hollywoodReporter.com on February 7, 2014 in a post entitled “Twitter in Legal War Over @JamesDean“. In this court case the company that manages the late actor James Dean’s licensing rights has sued Twitter to stop the use by an anonymous person who has registered @JamesDean. This case is in an Indian State Court and alleges a wrongful exploitation of the actor’s publicity rights.
In yet another recent case reported by Eriq Gardner on January 30, 2014 at hollywoodReporter.com entitled “Bing Crosby’s First Wife Denied Value of His Publicity Rights“, the court indicated that such rights may not be community rights and, therefore, a celebrity is entitled to the whole of such rights notwithstanding any lifetime spousal claims.
As can be seen from the above discussion, an estate fiduciary may be faced with many complex issues regarding a decedent’s assets during the course of estate administration. As a New York estate lawyer I have represented many executors and administrators and assisted them in collecting and distributing the assets of a decedent.