Fighting over estates is never pretty. These court battles are emotional, draining, and sometimes downright nasty for everyone involved. When they happen to the estate of a beloved American icon, it's even more tragic.
Rosa Parks' Estate has been embroiled in fighting since not long after she died on October 25, 2005 at the age of 92 in Detroit, Michigan. You can read about the long history of the court battle, which we summarized in this Trial & Heirs article. In short, the Michigan Supreme Court restored the rights of the primary beneficiaries to Rosa Parks' estate plan, years after the probate court judge ordered that their rights had been forfeited. Finally, it seemed that the fighting had reached its end.
Instead, the battle actually turned uglier than before. The attorney representing those beneficiaries who rights were recently restored -- Rosa Parks' friend Elaine Steele and the charitable institute that Rosa Parks had created, which Steele operates -- went on the attack again. He took the highly-unusual step of suing the probate judge who oversees the Rosa Parks Estate, Hon. Freddie Burton, and the two lawyers whom the Judge had appointed to administer the Estate, John Chase, Jr. and Melvin Jefferson.
In doing so, Steele's attorney accused them of cronyism, corruption, over-charging the Estate and more. The attorney issued a press release about it and the allegations received widespread press coverage nationally, including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, ABC News, and many others. Steele's attorney went on a Detroit-area radio show and openly discussed how he felt that Judge Burton, Chase and Jefferson were corrupt and engaged in a conspiracy. He even said he believed the Judge was taking bribes. The attorney promised to have Judge Burton removed from the case and accused him of refusing to "give up his corrupt ways."
Judge Burton dismissed the allegations Steele's attorney raised and refused to step down from the case. His decision not to disqualify himself was upheld by the chief judge of the Wayne County Probate Court. Steele appealed the decision, and the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal. Steele will likely appeal again.
We regularly write and are interviewed about celebrity estates around the country, but we still maintain our law practice in Michigan. While we have not been involved as attorneys in the Rosa Parks case, we've had other cases in front of Judge Burton as well as cases with both Chase and Jefferson. All three of them have been nothing but respectful and highly-ethical in our dealings with them. All enjoyed outstanding reputations in the legal community prior to these allegations. It's not easy for them to try to restore their reputations after the campaign Steele's attorney launched against them, which was nothing short of slanderous.
It's tragic that Steele's attorney chose to use the visibility of the Rosa Parks name and all she stood for to bring national attention to these wild and outlandish accusations. It's one thing to file lawsuits and allege wrongdoing, it's a much different story to play on -- and stain in the process -- Rosa Parks' reputation in an effort to publicize the allegations. It's especially true when terms like "corruption", "cronyism" and "bribery" are used without evidence that any of this occurred, beyond disagreeing with some of the Judge's decisions (which happens in every lawsuit).
In fact, we've disagreed with Judge Burton's rulings at times in this case, specifically his decision to cause Steele and the Institute to forfeit their rights under Rosa Parks' Estate. But a Judge making decisions that many disagree with, or that may have been wrong under the law, is a far cry from corruption or cronyism.
The attorney who represents Chase and Jefferson, Alan May, is now fighting back for his clients. He recently filed a new petition asking for Steele's attorney to be removed from the case and sanctioned, for what he believes are serious ethical violations caused by the allegations and the way they were publicized. May says that he is trying to "rehabilitate the reputations of my clients" and points out that Chase and Jefferson have never "been found to have violated a position of trust in this case or any other case."
Interestingly, Steele's lawyer was recently sanctioned by a different Wayne County Probate Court judge in another high-profile estate in Detroit, for making similar accusations without evidence. It is quite likely that the attorney will also be sanctioned in the Rosa Parks Estate.
There is a lesson in this sad story for everyone. Fights over estates and trusts of those who pass away are far more common than most people realize. Even modest estates of a hundred thousand dollars or less can spark ugly and bitter feuds. In fact, Rosa Parks' Estate only had $372,000 in it after she died.
While it is certainly unusual for lawyers to lob accusations of corruption against sitting judges, it is not unusual for those involved in estate fights to get carried away by emotion, leading to broken families and anger that never goes away. While it's impossible to completely prevent an estate fight from happening to your clients after they pass away, well-drafted and thorough estate planning is the best way.
And if your client or a loved one does become embroiled in a fight, you may want to counsel them to consider settling early before the fighting turns ugly. No one wins when cases drag on and turn as nasty as the Rosa Parks Estate battle. Not even the lawyers.
By Danielle and Andy Mayoras, co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, husband-and-wife legacy expert attorneys, and hosts of the national television special, Trial & Heirs: Protect Your Family Fortune! For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update. You can "like" them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.