Muddy Waters' estate still not settled 35 years after his death

Thirty-five years ago this week, blues legend Muddy Waters passed away at the age of 68. However, his heirs are still slugging it out over a $2-million royalty claim.

Waters was born in 1915 in the tiny Mississippi Delta town of Rolling Fork, Mississippi. His birth name was McKinley Morganfield. He was a seminal figure in the country blues sound, and his music was the inspiration for many British musicians like the Rolling Stones.

Heirs versus executor

The ongoing battle stems from a dispute between Waters' heirs and his former management company, which was headed by Waters' estate executor and former manager until the manager's death a few years ago.

The terms of Waters' will state that his executor, via his management company, was authorized to "handle all of the royalty, copyright and license work connected with [Waters'] songs for as long as there is this type of work to be done." His executor was also directed to distribute any earnings from those royalty rights to Waters' heirs semiannually.

A reopened estate

Prior to his executor's death, the heirs petitioned the court to reopen the estate, as they were concerned that Waters' royalties may have been mismanaged.

The estate was reopened in DuPage County, IL, following the heirs' successful argument that it had never been closed properly. They were also allowed by the judge to appoint a new administrator to review the status of specific remaining assets, i.e., the royalties.

New administrator

Waters' daughter, Mercy Morganfield, was appointed administrator of her father's estate. The heirs have subsequently been trying to trace the trail of royalties generated by Waters' estate but that never got paid to them. The heirs filed a petition in January to go through the former executor's financial records to recover assets. They allege that in the six-year period from 2008 to 2014, Waters' former manager used his management company to illegally divert to his family and himself almost $2 million worth of royalty payments.

The former manager's widow is now in charge of the day-to-day operations of the management company. She disputes the heirs' claim. In her court filing this month, she claims that the terms of Waters' will don't authorize his heirs to administer his estate. She also alleges the court was in error to reopen the estate three years ago.

Additionally, she maintains that a couple of Waters' famous guitars that she voluntarily gave to family members last year should be returned. The woman claims that the family didn't fulfill their promise to donate the guitars to a museum, which was stipulated in Waters' will.

Avoiding these issues in your own estate planning

Not all contentious estate battles can be avoided, but many can with a well-crafted estate plan in place. Choosing the right person to administer your estate after your death is key to a smooth transition for your heirs.

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