Muddy Waters’ Family Still Singing the Blues: An Estate Plan Still Not Settled After 35 Years

Dan just turned 65 and is beginning to tackle the items on his bucket list. Recently, he was able to check off an item that was near the top—a trip to New Orleans to experience Mardi Gras, see the French Quarter, eat a beignet at Café Du Monde, and listen to some of the best jazz and blues cover bands perform at local bars. On the way home from his trip, he had a tune stuck in his head by one of the greats, Muddy Waters. Dan quickly googled Muddy Waters to learn more about him and to download some of his music. That’s when he saw that Muddy died in 1983 at age 68, and Dan was shocked to learn that in all this time, his estate is still not settled — Muddy’s heirs are still fighting it out over a $2-million royalty claim, and it’s been 35 years since his death!

A Little History

Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield in 1915) grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was a famous musician who specialized in country blues sound, and his music was the inspiration for many, including the Rolling Stones who got their band name from one of his songs.

Muddy Waters’ longtime wife, Geneva, died of cancer in 1973. Years later, Muddy traveled to Florida and met his future wife, 19-year-old Marva Jean Brooks, whom he nicknamed “Sunshine”. His sons from his first marriage, Larry “Mud” Morganfield and Big Bill Morganfield, are also blues singers and musicians. In 2017, another son, Joseph “Joe” Morganfield, began publicly performing the blues, often with his brothers. Muddy also has a daughter named Mercy.

Muddy Chooses a Company to Administer his Will

Waters met Scott Cameron in the late 1970s, and Cameron managed Waters during his late-career revival until his death. Waters trusted Cameron, so in his Last Will and Testament, he authorized Cameron’s management company to “handle all of the royalty, copyright, and license work connected with his songs.” Waters directed Cameron’s management company to distribute the earnings to Waters’ heirs twice a year. However, shortly before Cameron’s death in 2015, Waters’ heirs asked the court to reopen his estate over concerns about how Cameron’s company had managed the royalties.

In April 2015, Judge Paul Fullerton reopened Waters’ estate after Waters’ heirs successfully argued that the estate had never been properly closed and that a new administrator was needed to determine the status of certain assets in Cameron’s possession: namely, Waters’ royalties. The judge granted the heirs’ petition despite arguments by the management company’s attorney that reopening an estate that was closed in 1987 set bad precedent and violated the statute of limitations.

The judge appointed Waters’ daughter, Mercy Morganfield, to serve as administrator of Waters’ estate. Since Mercy’s appointment, Waters’ heirs have tried to figure out the whereabouts of hundreds of thousands of dollars generated by Waters’ estate but not paid to them. According to the heirs, the answer was in Cameron’s financial records. In January 2018, they filed a petition to recover assets from the management company, alleging that between 2008 and 2014, Cameron used the management company to improperly give himself and his family nearly $2 million in royalties.

Cameron’s widow, who now runs the management company, disputes the claim, asserting that Waters’ heirs aren’t authorized to administer his estate. She states that the court erred in 2015 when it allowed his estate to be reopened. She also said that two of Waters’ famous guitars, which she returned to his family in 2017, should be given back to her because the family had failed to donate them to a museum as required under Waters’ Will.

The parties are due back in court this month. We will update our readers on the outcome via social media!

Lessons Learned: Avoiding these issues in your own estate planning

Not all contentious estate battles can be avoided, but many can with a well-crafted estate plan in place. Things could’ve been different for the Waters’ family if Muddy would have chosen his executor differently, as we will explore in the next part of this article. Choosing the right person or third-party to administer your estate after your death is key to a smooth transition for your heirs.

In the past, we did a series on estate planning mistakes of celebrities. Read our recent article on this topic for examples of mistakes that actors, athletes and entertainers who have passed away have made in their planning — and what we can learn from them.

Is a third-party executor or trustee the best choice for you?

An executor is a person or company you designate to carry out your directions and to dispose of your probate assets as you have instructed in your Last Will and Testament. A trustee is a person or company you designate to carry out your directions and to dispose of your trust assets as you have instructed in your Living Trust. Generally, the role of the executor and/or trustee is to make sure debts and taxes are paid, and assets distributed as provided in the dispository document. An executor’s duties include:

· Locating a copy of the will and filing it with the court;

· Providing statutory notices to creditors and heirs;

· Locating, maintaining, and preserving assets (which often includes real estate and other investments)

· Filing an inventory of the assets with the court;

· Accounting for all income received and expenses paid; and

· Serving as the representative for the estate in court proceedings.

In many situations it can be beneficial to name a trust company, a bank, a law firm, or other corporate fiduciary as the executor or trustee. Depending on the size of the estate / trust and the assets involved, it may be difficult or burdensome for someone not familiar with the process to serve as executor or trustee, although serving as a trustee of a living trust is generally much simpler than acting as executor of a will, because a trustee of a living trust does not have to deal with all the court filings required by the probate court.

Having a third party in charge, even if they charge a fee, will eliminate the risk of creating family disharmony. Everyone may end up being mad at the third party, but at least they are not mad at each other. That may be money well spent to preserve family unity.

As you can see from Muddy Waters’ family situation, you need to be careful what company you choose to manage your estate. Using a trust company or a trusted lawyer provides a great deal of protection against fraud, theft, or errors.

Estate Planning is Important for Everyone

We here at the Farr Law Firm 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.