A blog post

The Estate of Marilyn Monroe

Posted on the 05 September, 2012 at 9:10 pm Written by in Taxes

There is a saying among tax pros: “do not let the tax tail wag the dog.” The point is to not let taxes so influence the decision that the final decision is not in your best interest. An example is failing to sell a profitable stock position for the sake of not paying taxes. Seems a good idea until the stock market – and your stock – takes a dive.

This past week I was reading about the estate of Marilyn Monroe. Did you know that her estate was the third highest-earning estate in 2011?  Her estate earned $27 million and came in behind the estates of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. What is driving this earning power?

What is driving it is “rights of publicity.” For example, the website Squidoo.com reports that Marilyn Monroe posters remain one of the top-sellers for students decorating their dorm rooms. A “right of publicity” exists at the whim of state statute. There is no federal law equivalent. Indiana is considered to have one of the most far-reaching statutes, recognizing rights to publicity for 100 years after death.

Marilyn Monroe divorced Joe DiMaggio in October, 1954. She then left California for New York. In 1956 she married Arthur Miller, and the couple lived In Manhattan’s Sutton Place. Marilyn still considered this her home when she died in Brentwood, California in August, 1962.

The executors of her estate had a tax decision to make: was her estate taxable to California (where she died) or New York (where she maintained the apartment and staff). They decided it would be New York, primarily because California’s estate taxes would have been expensive. By treating her as a New York resident, they were able to limit California to less than $800 in taxes.

Let’s go forward three or four decades, and states like California and Indiana now permit celebrities’ estates to earn large revenues, in large part by liberalizing property interests such as publicity rights. Some states have not been so liberal – states such as New York.

You can see this coming, can’t you?

Let’s continue. In 2001 The New York County Surrogate’s Court permitted the estate to close, transferring the assets to a Delaware corporation known as Marilyn Monroe LLC (MMLLC). The licensing agent for MMLLC is CMG Worldwide, an Indiana company that also manages the estate of James Dean. Is the selection of Indiana coincidental? I doubt it, given what we discussed above.

Marilyn is an iconoclastic image, and her photographs – and the rights to those photographs – are worth a mint. Enter Sam Shaw, who took many photographs of Marilyn, including the famous photo of her standing over a subway grate with her skirt billowing. The Shaw Family Archives (SFA) got into it with MMLLC, with MMLLC arguing that it exclusively owned the Monroe publicity rights.  SFA sued MMLLC in New York, and the court granted SFA summary judgment. The court noted that Marilyn Monroe was not a domiciliary of Indiana at her time of death, so her estate could not transfer assets to Indiana and obtain legal rights that did not exist when she died. She was either a resident of New York or California, and neither state recognized a posthumous right of publicity at her time of death.

MMLLC had no intention of rolling over. It called a few people who knew a few people.

In 2007 Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill creating a posthumous right of publicity, so long as the decedent was a resident of California at the time of death. Even better, the law was made retroactive. The law could reach back to the estate of Marilyn Monroe. Wow! How is that for tax planning!

Now the estate of Marilyn Monroe started singing a different tune: of course Marilyn was a resident of California at her time of death. That entire issue of making her a New York resident was a misunderstanding. She had been living in California. She loved California and had every intention of making it her home, especially now that California retroactively changed its law 45 years after her death.

You know this had to go to court. MMLLC did not help by aggressively suing left and right to protect the publicity rights.

Last week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (that is, California’s circuit) ruled that The Milton Greene Archives can continue selling photographs of Marilyn Monroe without paying MMLLC for publicity rights. The court noted that the estate claimed Monroe was a New York resident to avoid paying California taxes. The estate (through MMLLC) cannot now claim Monroe was a California resident to take advantage of a state law it desires.

NOTE: This is called “judicial estoppel,” and it bars a party from asserting a position different from one asserted in the past.

The appeals judge was not impressed with MMLLC and wrote the following:

“This is a textbook case for applying judicial estoppel. Monroe’s representatives took one position on Monroe’s domicile at death for forty years, and then changed their position when it was to their great financial advantage; an advantage they secured years after Monroe’s death by convincing the California legislature to create rights that did not exist when Monroe died. Marilyn Monroe is often quoted as saying, ‘If you’re going to be two-faced, at least make one of them pretty.’”

What becomes now of MMLLC’s rights to publicity? Frankly, I do not know. It is hard to believe they will pick up their tent and leave the campground, however.

I am somewhat sympathetic to the estate and MMLLC’s situation. It was not as though the estate made its decision knowing that property rights were at stake.  At the time there were no property rights. It made what should have been a straightforward tax decision. Who could anticipate how this would turn out?

On a related note, guess whose case will also soon come before the Ninth Circuit on the issue of post-mortem publicity rights?  Here is a clue: he was from Seattle, had a four-year career and died a music legend. Give up?

It’s the estate of Jimi Hendrix.