All About Estates

Rosa Parks’ Estate Tied Up in Litigation as Her Memorabilia Goes to Auction

Almost six years after her death, the estate of civil rights hero Rosa Parks is still being litigated.  Court pleadings recently filed with the Michigan Supreme Court provide new details about the controversy surrounding Parks’ estate.

At the time of her death, Parks’ estate had liquid assets of only $372,000, but that did not include the undetermined value of her considerable memorabilia and the rights to the use of her name and image.

Parks’ left the majority of her estate to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development (the “Institute”).  The Institute is operated by Parks’ longtime friend, Elaine Steele (“Steele”) and educates the public on the civil rights movement.  Parks, who never had children, left approximately 10% of her estate to her surviving nieces and nephews. The bulk of her estate she gifted to the Institute.  Before her death, Parks had given the Institute the right to licence her image and likeness.

Shortly after her death, Parks’ nieces and nephews sought to have her Will declared invalid on the grounds that Steele unduly influenced their aunt to leave the majority of her estate to the Institute.  Steele and her co-trustee, a retired judge, were removed as the trustees of the trust.  Two attorneys, Chase and Jefferson, were appointed co-trustees by the probate court pending the conclusion of the Will challenge.

The Institute and Parks’ nieces and nephews eventually entered into a settlement.  In the process of implementing the settlement, the probate court awarded Chase and Jefferson compensation of $100,000 from Parks’ estate.  The Institute appealed the probate court’s decision to pay Chase and Jefferson that sum.  The Michigan Court of Appeal upheld the payments to Chase and Jefferson. However, during the appeal, Chase and Jefferson and Parks’ nieces and nephews came to believe that the Institute breached the terms of the confidential settlement agreement by leaking information to the press.

Chase and Jefferson advised the probate court of the breach of confidentiality by the Institute.  The probate judge overseeing the administration of Parks’ estate ordered that the Institute forfeit their rights to Parks’ estate and trust.  In an extraordinary decision, the Institute lost all rights to Parks’ estate for violating the terms of the settlement.

The Institute appealed that decision to the Michigan Court of Appeal and lost again. The appellate court affirmed the probate court’s decision and praised the work performed by Chase and Jefferson as the value of the estate had increased greatly under their administration.  The Institute is now seeking to have the Michigan Supreme Court review the case.  In their pleadings, the Institute accuses the probate court of corruption.

Currently, Parks’ memorabilia is held by Guernsey’s Auctioneers who hope to sell the whole collection to a museum or educational institution.  The proceeds of the sale of the memorabilia will be paid to Parks’ estate. Thankfully, Parks’ legacy is sure to survive the controversy surrounding the administration of her estate.

Enjoy your weekend,

Diane

About Diane Vieira
Diane has practiced in the area of estate, trust and capacity litigation since she was called to the Ontario Bar in 2006. Diane obtained her law degree from Queen’s University after completing an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto. She also recently received the Certificate in Elder Law from Osgoode Hall Law School. She is a member of the Trusts & Estates Section of the Ontario Bar Association, the Advocates’ Society, and the Toronto Lawyers Association. Diane has chaired various continuing legal education programs regarding estate, trust and capacity matters. She can be reached at dvieira@devrieslitigation.com