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Closed Estates (or, What Eric Carmen, The Godfather, & Marilyn Monroe Have in Common)

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This is a serious question that we get a lot: ‘when are estates closed?’ When is it finally done, wrapped up, no longer susceptible to challenges, no longer managing assets? A pretty important question, really, for trustees, beneficiaries, and interested parties on the outside looking in.

While there is no definitive answer to how long an estate can be open, a guideline is – a lot longer than you may suspect. Just ask Eric Carmen. You may not remember him, but you definitely know at least two of his songs: All By Myself and Never Going to Fall in Love Again, two songs released in 1975 that are serious earworms today. Mainstays of oldies Stations and grocery stores; they were huge hits.

Carmen, a classically trained musician, freely admitted the songs were based on Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Pretty much note for note, in fact. Carmen knew that Rachmaninoff died in 1943 and assumed that was that, he was gone, the music was in the public domain.

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So, it came as a pretty big shock to Eric when almost instantaneously with All By Myself hitting the charts he got a notice from the Rachmaninoff estate. The estate was very much open, very much active, and very much concerned that its founder’s music was being used without permission. Carmen settled with them quickly as the song continued to climb the charts, the estate received a percentage of earnings. And still does.

Marilyn Monroe died tragically in August, 1962. Her estate, however, is alive and well and immensely profitable. Although no one knows who gets the money, for the most part. Her estate is a basically a company and its one and only product is Marilyn Monroe. Or at least her image.

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The problem is that no one really knows who gets the money. Marilyn died almost 54 years ago but her estate is still in court(s). Several money and tax issues weren’t settled until 2013, suit was recently filed in federal district court in New York concerning proceeds from the use of her image in things like the Dennis Leary snickers ad. It’s complex, involves big money, and may never be settled.

Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather in 1969. In the early Nineties he sued Paramount studios (they released the Godfather films) over licensing Puzo’s plot and characters to a video game maker for a Godfather game. Puzo had been paid very little for the rights to The Godfather by the studios – at one time it was thought that the book was unadaptable, too many characters, too many flashbacks – and was very sensitiveleary snickers about copyright issues.

He sued and won somewhere in the vicinity of seven figures and Paramount promised to play nice in the future. Puzo died in 1999. In 2006, Paramount licensed the Godfather ‘brand’ to another video game company, assumed that the agreement with Puzo died with him, and pocketed the fee.

Puzo’s estate proved to be as sensitive as the author and immediately went after Paramount. The estate won and that seemed to be that. Except that it wasn’t – in a twist worthy of the Godfather, Paramount sued the estate a few years ago. Puzo’s son was about to publish a novel taken up the Godfather saga from where his father left it.

denis leary snickers georgiaParamount claimed that the book was so bad it would ruin the brand. One would think a legitimate defense would be that the brand survived Paramount’s The Godfather III, but the case wound through the courts for a year or two until a settlement was reached.

There’s bad blood, however, on both sides and it’s pretty certain that they will go to the mattresses again in the near future. Another case of an estate that will be ‘open’ for decades.

Not all estates, of course, are as glamorous as these, but even ‘ordinary’ estates can be open for years. The point is, no one should ever assume an estate is closed and they have been frozen out. Conversely, no one managing an estate should ever assume it is immune to claims until there is a discharge order from the Probate Court saying so.
If you think any of this applies to your situation, please feel free to call a member of our team and schedule a consultation with our office.

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About the author

Erik J. Broel
Founder & ceo

Erik founded the firm in 2009. He sees it as his personal mission to demystify the process of handling an estate or trust, and to help people by making the complex estate process simple and accessible. He believes there is always a better way to do things, and loves finding new and innovative ways to deliver better, more effective service that solves the client’s key problem or issue, and improves the client’s life.

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