Celebrity Disputes

When Rock & Roll Hall of Fame musician Tom Petty died at 66 from an accidental drug overdose on October 2, 2017, plans for his ongoing musical legacy appeared to be set. His assets would be distributed pursuant to his extensive 77-page revocable trust administered by his second wife, Dana York Petty, with input from his biological daughters, Adria Petty and Annakim Violette.

When properly set up, a trust can efficiently manage and distribute assets, as well as avoid lengthy (and, at times, costly) probate court proceedings. However, probate court is in fact where Petty’s beneficiaries have ended up since best laid plans cannot account for the vicissitudes of a blended family.

On April 2, 2019, Dana filed a petition in the Los Angeles Superior Court requesting that the probate court appoint a manager to supervise decision-making for Petty’s estate. Adria in turn filed her own competing petition alleging that York hasn’t administered the trust properly and that all the beneficiaries should have an equal say in how the musician’s afterlife musical releases should be handled (An American Treasure and The Best of Everything albums have already been released since his death).

Petty’s trust provides that his daughters are “entitled to participate equally” in decisions regarding Petty’s catalog. Petty’s daughters interpret this provision to mean that Dana and each daughter gets one vote out of three, giving the daughters a majority two-thirds vote. Another interpretation is that Dana is entitled to one-half of the decision-making vote and his daughters together share the other one-half vote, thereby demonstrating the ambiguity of the phrase “participate equally.”

As usually is the case with high profile, celebrity probate matters, salacious allegations are receiving attention. Dana’s petition alleges that Adria wanted to leave “and the Heartbreakers” off the artist name on the Best of Everything album and gave founding members of the Heart breakers an earful about it in a lengthy email. Adria’s petition for all intents and purposes seeks to freeze York out from decisions as to her father’s musical catalog.

On May 15, 2019, Adria and Annakim filed a civil suit in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Petty Unlimited LLC against Dana, among other Defendants, alleging that Dana was diverting business opportunities from Petty Unlimited LLC, a company which was set up pursuant to Petty’s will. Instead, his daughters allege that Dana has been diverting Petty’s musical catalogue and intellectual property assets to Tom Petty Legacy LLC, a separate entity that she formed.The civil complaint accuses Dana with, among other causes of action, breach of fiduciary duty, unfair competition, and unjust enrichment. With their complaint, Petty’s daughters seek more than $5 million in damages, in addition to control of all Petty’s assets.

As Robert Burns’’ wrote in his 1786 poem To a Mouse, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men…Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry].” Or to apply it to the family Petty situation, the best laid estate plans can go awry when a blended family is involved.