The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Yesterday marked the official federal holiday chosen to honor civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It also happened to be Inauguration Day for President Barack Obama. In a unique twist, the President chose to be sworn in on the Bible that was read by Dr. King on the day that he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. It is a stirring reminder of the connections that echo throughout history.

As we often point out, in the world of estate planning and elder law, history is also a great guide to understanding what should or should not be done to help prepare yourself and your family for whatever the future might hold. Dr. King himself was taken far too soon, dying in 1968 at the age of thirty nine as a result of an assassin’s bullet. Because he passed away so suddenly–and relatively young–he had not conducted much estate planning at all.

The King Estate
At the time of his death in April of 1968, Dr. King did not have a will or any other estate plans in place. This has subsequently led to significant disagreement between involved parties. Many are surprised to learn that some of that disagreement continues today, many decades later.

According to various reports, Dr. King had about $30,000 when he died. Most of those funds passed along to his widow. However, the real confusion began only later, when the value King’s legacy and other materials connected to the national legend began to increase in value. This is a common occurrence for those with some national celebrity. It is not uncommon to find estate battles raging between parties related to high-profile. writers, actors, politicians, and others fifty or one hundred years after their passing.

Right now, for example, Dr King’s family is currently mired in litigation with the relatives of a former secretary of the civil right’s leader. At the center of the dispute are papers written by Dr, King’s that the family claims should have been part of the estate. The secretary’s son, conversely, argues that those papers were given to his mother as a gift by Dr. King. Some of the material may be of significant value, including a handwritten letter from Dr. King to Rosa Parks.

In a sign of how complex many of these matter’s become, years ago a corporation was actually created to handle Dr. King’s estate. Known at the Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc it is charged with handling the many different issues that arise related to the slain civil rights hero. It was that corporation that filed suit seeking ownership of the papers owned by the son of the former secretary.

At the end of the day, because there was no legal documentation in place, the litigation may come down to a “he said, she said” battle. What matters is Dr. King’s intent when he gave the papers over. If he intended the secretary to have them permanently, then that ends the matter. But if he intended for her to hold them for safe-keeping, then they may not belong to her. Yet, divining this intention decades later may be next to impossible.

Estate Planning Help
For help with these issues in New York City, Albany, White Plains, and many other communities throughout the state, please get in touch with the estate planning attorneys at our firm to see how we can help.

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