Mere weeks after winning nine-year probate case against her own stepmother, glamour queen’s shock death and controversial financial shape raise the odds of much bigger courtroom battles ahead.
Whitney Houston’s management had barely squelched rumors that the 48-year-old diva and recovering cocaine addict had run out of cash before they had to confirm reports that she was dead.
The latest news is that she fell asleep in the bathtub and drowned after mixing prescription painkillers with alcohol.
Now, it’s the disposition of Houston’s remaining wealth that is becoming the object of public scrutiny -- and giving advisors plenty to mull where their own clients are concerned.
If Houston’s lawyers were smart, they ironed out her estate plan a decade ago, the gurus tell me.
Back in 2001, she had just signed the biggest record deal in history -- six albums, $100 million in guaranteed royalties -- and the signs of her drug use were getting harder to hide.
That combination of massive incoming wealth and rising litigation and mortality risks should have been all the incentive her advisors needed to set up long-term trusts and iron out her will.
Unfortunately, that was also the moment at which her career and personal life started to unravel, so they might have missed their opportunity -- and as details come out, we might see the grim results.
A very complicated decade
Part of the problem is that Houston’s last decade was extremely complicated, so the lawyers had less time than we might think to keep her affairs orderly.
When she signed that $100 million contract, she was already carrying her long-time husband, Bobby Brown, and a young daughter.
Her father, who had managed her career up to that point, was slowly dying of heart disease and seems to have been perpetually hurting for cash.
In 2002, he sued her for a round $100 million, claiming he was owed that much for helping her beat marijuana possession charges and negotiate her big record deal.
That suit dragged on well after his death before being dismissed in 2004, robbing Houston’s lawyers of vital time to move that money into an asset protection trust.
As long as the lawsuit was pending, those record company millions were simply too hot to hide -- any judge would have considered such a move a blatant attempt to defraud an existing creditor.
Two years of relative quiet followed, but Houston spent a lot of that time in and out of rehab, so any claims she was in “sound mind and body” to sign any estate documents may not hold up without challenge.
Her divorce from Bobby Brown dragged on through most of 2007. Her lawyers were on the ball here: she had a prenuptial agreement cutting him out of her money and any legitimate claim to spousal support.
After that, she drifted out of the limelight. And now she’s gone.
Fighting her father’s example
Given the haphazard way the Houston musical dynasty used sophisticated planning techniques to manage its millions, we might expect to see Whitney’s estate reflect a mix of good and bad advice.
On the positive side, Bobby has no claim on her money, and now that daughter Bobbi Christina is legally an adult -- and out of the hospital herself -- he can’t try to get custody and the money that goes with that.
And Houston’s father earmarked a $1 million life insurance policy to cover the mortgage on his house, so someone over the years was on the ball there.
Unfortunately, if Whitney and her father used the same lawyers, we can expect fireworks ahead.
John Houston appears to have died without clearly stating whether the life insurance money was meant to go to Whitney -- who loaned him the money for the house in the first place -- or to pay off his debt to his daughter.
He left behind letters talking about how Whitney made an oral agreement to apply the $1 million toward the loan, but her lawyers successfully noted that nothing like that was spelled out in his actual will.
In November -- a full eight years after John Houston died -- the case finally wrapped up in Whitney’s favor.
Had the lawyers set up a trust to accept the life insurance proceeds and use them to pay off the loan, his wishes would have been clear and none of the ensuing legal in-fighting would have been necessary.
As the judge noted, it’s impossible to legally determine what the deceased would have wanted, beyond what’s spelled out in the documents.
How much was Whitney worth?
The big question is how much of Whitney’s money the lawyers managed to save.
She died owing Arista three records, so a big chunk of that $100 million from the 2001 contract could be forfeited right away.
Her 10-acre New Jersey property was once appraised as worth $6 million but more recently listed for well under $2 million -- barely what she owes in taxes and mortgage payments.
While rumor has it she was calling friends to borrow $100 a few weeks ago, her people insist that she wasn’t hurting for cash.
She’d just wrapped her first movie in 15 years, and as her staff says, she didn’t work for free.
“People get paid to make movies,” they point out.
And estate planners get paid to make sure the movie money lasts. Let’s hope Whitney’s lawyers earned their fees.