A Not So Happy Mistake Leaves Bob Ross’s Son with Nothing


Star Trek fans will surely remember Lieutenant Uhura, the communications specialist aboard the Starship Enterprise. Her role was played by Nichelle Nichols, who is currently embroiled in a highly-publicized guardianship drama. In the incredible publicity over her situation, some of you may have missed another pop icon, artist Bob Ross, whose business partners got everything and his son was left empty-handed. We will fill our readers in on the Bob Ross estate planning situation today and focus on Nichols’ guardianship battle next week!

Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed

Ever turn on the TV in the mid 80’s and early 90’s to see Bob Ross painting landscapes featuring happy little clouds and bright green trees? Some would just watch him for his soothing words of wisdom and calming demeanor, amazed that he could make a stroke of paint look like a snowy majestic mountain with evergreens in the distance. Others had hope that if they bought a canvas and some oil paints, that they maybe could emulate him and learn to paint!

Recently, Netflix has featured a documentary on the late, iconic public broadcasting TV host, painter Bob Ross–“Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed.” The film documents how the artist’s son, Steve, now 55, was allegedly robbed of his late father’s inheritance by the artist’s business partners, Annette and Walt Kowalski. The documentary offers cautionary lessons for business owners that could help them avoid making inheritance mistakes and in protecting their legacy.

The Documentary and the Story of Bob Ross, Inc.

According to the film, Bob Ross — an artist who created more than 30,000 paintings — didn’t concern himself with the business side of his enterprise. Instead, his passion lied in sharing his love of painting with the public (31 seasons of “The Joy of Painting” from 1983 to 1994) and convincing his audience that they, too, could paint landscapes.

When Bob Ross Inc. (BRI) was founded in 1985, the corporation was set up with equal partnership shares between Ross, his second wife Jane, and Annette and Walt Kowalski. Annette met Ross when she took one of his painting classes; Walt had retired from a career in the CIA. The agreement said that if one of the four partners died, his or her stock in the company would be equally distributed among the surviving partners and not to a chosen heir.

Bob Ross Loses Most of His Interest in the Company

In 1992, Bob’s wife Jane passed away. As mentioned, the business structure required that any shares of a deceased partner were to be distributed equally among the surviving partners. And that is how Ross, despite being the public face of the company, found himself with only one-third interest in it.

Shortly after Jane passed away, Ross developed lymphoma and the prognosis was grim. In 1994, while battling the disease that would take his life one year later, the Kowalskis approached Ross and they presented him with a contract giving the Kowalskis all commercial rights to Ross’ name, image, voice, biographical material, and creative works. In return, the Kowalskis would pay Ross or his surviving heirs 10% of Bob Ross Inc. profits – but only for the next ten years.

Ross did not agree; and instead modified his estate plan in an attempt to keep all the intellectual rights in his own family. He created the Bob Ross Trust, assigning 51% of the interest in all intellectual property to his brother, Jimmie Cox, and 49% to his son, Steve Ross.

Ross died in 1995 at age 52, leaving an estate valued at $1.3 million, half of which was his interest in Bob Ross Inc. The Kowalskis, unsuccessful at gaining control of the business, creative works, and intellectual property while Ross was alive, now sued the estate. In addition to asking for all intellectual rights, they wanted all of Ross’ finished paintings.

Today, the Kowalskis fully profit from sales of Bob Ross paintings, paint brushes, paint tubes, and other materials; Bob Ross paintings sometimes sell for $8,000 to $10,000 online.

The contracts that “The Joy of Painting” host signed with the Kowalskis eventually prevented Bob Ross’ son, Steve, a talented painter following in his father’s footsteps, from obtaining the rights to his dad’s name, work, and money.

A Safeguard in Bob Ross’s Trust

As mentioned, Bob Ross did erect one safeguard: The Bob Ross Trust, which the artist established in 1994. Under its terms, at Ross’ death, the interest in all rights to the painter’s next in line would transfer to his half-brother, Jim Cox, and son, Steve. Yet, Ross made another legal mistake: giving 51% of the interest to Cox and only 49% to his son, making Cox the executor of the trust and the person charged with carrying out Ross’ wishes.

In 1997, about two years after Ross died of lung cancer, Cox folded to legal pressure from the Kowalskis, signing over Ross’ entire enterprise to the couple. Steve Ross sued the Kowalskis in 2017, alleging the trust gave him the rights to his father’s business interests and intellectual property, but he lost the case.

In 2019, a federal judge ruled that even though Bob Ross did not explicitly transfer his work and his  to the Kowalskis, the other contracts he’d signed with the couple before establishing the trust effectively gave them the rights. By this reasoning, the trust never had the rights to Ross’s name, work, and money in the first place.

Without enough money to file an appeal, Steve Ross hasn’t collected a penny of the profits his father intended for him.

How the Situation Could Have Been Avoided

Here are a few key lessons the Bob Ross story that could have helped the situation be avoided altogether.

  1. Failing to coordinate your business succession plan with your estate planning can lead to chaos and unintended consequences: If you have a business, whether it’s a corporation, partnership, LLC, or other business structure, your estate plan must be coordinated and integrate with your business planning. Be sure to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney that understands the dynamics of both.
  2. Make sure that your estate plan is clearly written and reinforces what your ultimate intentions are.
  3. If you have a business, carefully consider how shares are divided now and how they will be divided upon a shareholder’s death. The Ross story shows how important it is to assess what each partner offers to a corporation and then to distribute shares accordingly.
  4. Seek your own legal counsel: If Bob had sought his own legal counsel, his lawyer would have likely advised that in the event of a spouse’s death, that person’s shares would go to their spouse or to an heir of their choosing. This would have then given Bob Jane’s shares upon her death or perhaps would have had Jane’s shares go to Bob’s son.
  5. Revisit your estate planning documents regularly: Ross could have appointed his son the executor of his estate as soon as Steve was deemed mature enough, rather than Cox. If Steve wasn’t deemed mature enough to handle his father’s estate at the time of Ross’ death, a trust company or lawyer could have been named as the trustee of the trust and thus could have looked out for the interests of Ross’ son.

Sometimes it can be helpful to look at the estate planning mistakes of others, including celebrities, to learn from them. For more examples of estate planning mistakes of celebrities, please read my article, 10 Biggest Estate Planning Blunders of Celebrities – Don’t Make These Mistakes!

Estate Planning is Important for Everyone- Not Just the Rich and Famous!

At the Farr Law Firm, we have strategies in place to help all types of people plan for themselves and their loved ones (whether or not you are rich and famous . . . and most of our clients are not!). With advance planning, each person can retain the assets it has taken a lifetime to accumulate and the peace of mind that their child(ren)’s needs will be adequately and properly addressed. If you or members of your family have not done Incapacity Planning or Estate Planning, or if a loved one is beginning to need more care than you can handle, please contact us as soon as possible to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Estate Planning: 703-691-1888

Fredericksburg Estate Planning: 540-479-1435

Rockville Estate Planning: 301-519-8041

DC Estate Planning: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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