THE TOM PETTY ESTATE BATTLE: FROM WILDFLOWERS TO A WILDFIRE
It’s been almost a year and a half since singer-songwriter Tom Petty died of an accidental drug overdose at age 66, on October 2, 2017. Since then, the tension between his widow, Dana York Petty, and his two daughters from Petty’s prior marriage has been brewing until it exploded. In recent new court filings, Dana calls the actions of Tom Petty’s daughters, Adria Robin Petty and Annakim Violette, “abusive” and “erratic.” They in turn accuse Dana of “gross mismanagement” costing them $5 million or more.
Certainly, the feud is not what the Wildflowers artist imagined when he created his trust.
Dana’s latest court petition explains, in great detail, the history of the family’s dispute since Tom Petty died. Their disagreement culminated in the filing of multiple court proceedings between them, vying for control over Petty’s intellectual property rights, including the marketing rights to his name and image, royalties, and artistic creations.
For example, Dana chides Adria for wanting to authorize Petty’s name and likeness to be used for promotional products, such as salad dressing, akin to Paul Newman. She accuses both daughters of trying to lock her out of any say over how her late husband’s image, music, or other artistic properties are used, marketed, or managed.
Adria and Annakim filed their own lawsuits against Dana. They allege that their father’s wishes, spelled out in the Thomas Early Petty Living Trust, could not be clearer.
While the Trust appointed Dana as the sole trustee – giving her control over managing the Trust assets after Tom Petty died – the Trust document required her to transfer the artistic properties into a new limited liability company, or LLC. The Trust further directed that Dana, Adria and Annakim “shall be entitled to participate equally in the management of the Artistic Property Entity.” The daughters claim that the Trust contained a six-month time limit for the transfer, which passed long ago.
The Trust language forms the heart of this dispute. According to Dana’s court filings, Adria and Annakim believe “participate equally” means all three get to vote and the majority rules. This would mean that the daughters could outvote and override Dana’s wishes whenever they want.
Dana instead proposes that the LLC should be managed by a professional manager, Larry Jenkins. In fact, Dana points out that Adria was the one who proposed and even tried to hire Jenkins for this position, but that Adria later changed her mind when Jenkins did not agree to make all of the decisions that Adria wanted him to make.
Adria and Annakim’s lawyers recently filed a lawsuit against Dana and several others, including Jenkins. They accuse Dana, Jenkins and the other defendants of stealing Tom Petty’s intellectual property, usurping corporate opportunities, breach of fiduciary duty, unfair competition, and conspiring to interfere with prospective economic advantages. Dana’s attorney calls this new lawsuit to be frivolous and “destructive nonsense”.
Ultimately, Tom Petty fans will likely suffer from the dispute. Because of it, according to Dana’s position, Adria is causing a new album with unreleased music to be delayed.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Petty’s most successful solo album, Wildflowers. A “treasure trove” of Tom Petty recordings from original album sessions are to be released on a planned commemorative album, called Wildflowers – All The Rest, as part of a new box set.
Dana says that Warner Bros. Records has already offered an advance of around one million dollars for the release, before serious negotiations have begun. But, she claims, Adria won’t agree. To support her position, Dana’s latest court filings include pages of detailed text messages and other communications sent between Adria and Dana.
Adria and her legal team have not yet responded to Dana’s most recent court papers, but her position is clear from the recent Complaint that seeks more than $5 million in damages against Dana and the other defendants. She and her sister allege that Dana, not them, has cost valuable business opportunities to be lost, usurping lucrative deals for herself. Dana vehemently denies the charges.
Clearly, as the 18-month mark from Tom Petty’s death approaches, his family’s dispute is getting worse, not better. While there have no public or confirmed estimates of his estate’s value, some estimate his net worth as of his death to be as high as $95 million.
While the most valuable part of this – Petty’s artistic and intellectual properties – are to be divided in equal thirds for the benefit of his spouse and two daughters, their inability to reach a consensus on how to manage these assets means that none of them are likely to benefit from this anytime soon. Instead, Tom Petty’s legacy may be forever tarnished by his family’s battle over his Trust.
Sadly, trust and estate fights over the financial legacy of a deceased loved one in blended families are far from uncommon. While tens of millions of dollars are not usually on the line, disputes because of ambiguous language in a trust document happen frequently. And many families battle in court over who should be in control of assets.
In this case, Tom Petty chose his wife to act as trustee but required that she transfer his Artistic Properties to a new limited liability company and allow all three to participate in management equally. But “participate” does not necessarily mean “vote”, and some level of professional management is required for assets of this nature.
If Petty wanted each of the three to participate through voting, with a simple “majority rules” to apply, he could have spelled that out in his Trust. On the other hand, he also could have directed that a professional manager be hired, with important decisions subject to a unanimous vote requirement, as is often done in family-owned LLC’s. Either side’s interpretation of the Trust language at issue could ultimately win out in court.
So this dispute will languish, perhaps getting even uglier before it gets better. And Tom Petty fans can only hope that the resulting wildfire will soon burn out, leaving the wildflowers free to bloom.
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, television hosts and keynote speakers. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. For all the latest celebrity legal news, be sure to check out their blog.
[photo credit: Wikipedia]