Tom Petty was one of the most successful rock stars of the last forty years. The Gainesville, Florida icon and lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers passed away in October 2017. Unfortunately, his death caused a disagreement among his family members who decided that they “won’t back down.” As a result, his daughters from his first marriage, Adria Petty and Annakim Violette, sued Dana York Petty, his widow.
The daughters accused Dana of setting up a company, Tom Petty Legacy, LLC, as a vehicle to deprive them of their father’s assets. This company is separate from Petty Unlimited, LLC, which was established in 2018 to manage Tom Petty’s assets after he died and to determine how Petty’s works are released. Dana had petitioned the probate court, alleging that Petty’s daughters had interfered with plans to release outtakes from the original “Wildflowers” album.
The daughters claim the terms of Petty’s Trust give them “equal participation” in making decisions about handling the estate. Dana has claimed in court documents the daughters are attempting to “rule by majority.” She also has said that as sole trustee for the estate, she gets the final word on decisions.
The issue in this case was an apparent ambiguity in the estate documents and what was meant by “equal participation.” “Equal participation” could mean Petty wanted each of the three parties to have an equal vote, which would give the daughters a 2-1 majority. It could also mean the daughters have the right to participate in the decision-making process but can be overruled by Dana. It could mean that the daughters had one collective vote and his wife had the other, creating a possible deadlock.
Issues like this one happen often in the drafting of documents and particularly estate documents and sometimes such an ambiguity is not noticed until others – the beneficiaries and their lawyers, review the documents. Here, the parties litigated this ambiguity and likely other issues involving Petty’s estate.
The parties finally “backed down.” The dispute was litigated for approximately one year until the parties recently settled the dispute in December 2019.
There are lessons to be learned from this case, particularly the importance in reviewing every word in estate planning documents, both when drafting and when reviewing after the testator’s death.