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Court begins weighing Jackson estate's fate

Judge asks lawyers for the singer's mother and his executors to try to reach an accord before a hearing on Monday.

July 02, 2009|Harriet Ryan

In one corner are Michael Jackson's parents. In the opposite stand a prominent entertainment attorney and a respected music executive. Whether the sides will fight for control of the pop star's lucrative estate or come to an agreement seems likely to be decided in the next four days.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge reviewed a copy of a 2002 will on Wednesday that names attorney John Branca and John McClain, a co-founder of Interscope Records, executors of Jackson's estate, but he declined the men's request to remove the performer's mother, Katherine, from her role as temporary administrator.

Judge Mitchell Beckloff acknowledged that his basis for granting the 79-year-old the power -- an assertion by her attorneys Monday that Jackson died without a will -- was "likely wrong," but he said the matter could be aired fully at a hearing Monday to discuss legal issues created by the performer's death.

In the meantime, Beckloff, supervising judge of the court's probate division, urged the parties to reach a consensus over the long holiday weekend.

"I would like the family to sit down and try to make this work so that we don't have a difficult time in court," the judge said.

Lawyers for Jackson's parents say they are evaluating the validity of the will. The document bears Jackson's signature, and many paragraphs of the document are initialed "MJ." Dated July 7, 2002, the will called for all of Jackson's assets to be transferred into the Michael Jackson Family Trust. The beneficiaries are not identified in the will, but the singer reportedly divided his estate among his mother, his children and charities.

He put Branca, who had represented him since 1980, and McClain, a longtime family friend, in charge of settling the estate. A third executor named, former business advisor Barry Siegel, resigned from consideration in 2003, according to a statement released by representatives for Branca and McClain.

The will appointed Katherine Jackson guardian of her two grandsons and granddaughter and requested that music legend Diana Ross care for the children if his mother was unable to do so. The judge previously granted Katherine Jackson temporary custody.

Neither Jackson's parents nor the named executors attended a hearing after the will's filing. Their attorneys complained to the judge about their adversaries' conduct, but both sides were deferential in referring to Katherine Jackson. Explaining why she had not signed certain paperwork, Burt Levitch, an attorney for Jackson's parents, said, "She's in the middle of planning her son's funeral."

And in a statement, Branca and McClain called Jackson's desire that his mother raise the children "the most important element of Michael's will."

Branca, who has represented 28 members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, guided Jackson over 26 years and through the release of the "Thriller" album and his purchase of his greatest asset, a music catalog that includes the work of the Beatles. McClain has a 40-year relationship with the Jackson family, including studio work with the Jackson 5 and Janet Jackson.

Jeryll S. Cohen, an attorney for the named executors, said it was "essential" that Branca and McClain get control so they could begin negotiations with AEG Live, the promoter of the 50 London concerts Jackson was rehearsing for at the time of his death.

"There are $85 million of tickets out there," Cohen said. She said discussions "need to be entered into immediately with AEG to mitigate the loss from the decedent's death and nonperformance."

Another attorney for the executors, Paul Gordon Hoffman, told the judge that his clients had surveyed all lawyers who had worked with the performer in recent years, and "it appears highly unlikely that there is another valid will out there."

But the judge agreed with lawyers for Katherine and Joe Jackson, who said there was no urgency. He noted that the matriarch has "very tiny slim authority" limited only to securing "tangible items" that might be stolen by memorabilia hunters. She cannot spend the pop star's money or enter into business deals.

The hearing in a downtown courtroom offered a preview of the legal heft that may be brought to bear in the settling of the affairs of a man that the judge called "an international music star." Five attorneys stood before the judge during arguments, with half a dozen taking notes in the gallery.

Meanwhile, two sources told The Times that the Drug Enforcement Administration is now assisting the L.A. County coroner's office and the Los Angeles Police Department in the probe into the circumstances surrounding Jackson's death.

Late Wednesday, Staples Center emerged as a possible site for a public memorial service. Several sources said the Jackson family was considering a proposal for an event Tuesday morning, though a publicist for the family declined to comment, and a source close to the discussions said no decisions had been made.


Times staff writers Scott Glover, Cara Mia DiMassa, Victoria Kim and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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