The death of comedian and actor Richard Pryor over a decade ago caused a bitter feud to erupt between Pryor’s widow and some of his children from previous relationships. That feud took the widow and children through probate court and even up to the Appeals court – and the discord continues to this day. What did Pryor do right and wrong when it comes to the estate plan he left behind? What estate planning lessons, if any, can we learn from his estate plan and the probate litigation that followed his death?
Setting the Stage – Pryor’s Marriages, Children, and Death
Richard Pryor was married seven times to five different women. He married two women twice. One of the women he married twice was also his widow, Jennifer Lee-Pryor. Jennifer married Pryor for the second time in 2001, making Pryor’s final marriage to Jennifer his longest marriage, lasting until his death in 2005. Although Richard and Jennifer did not have any children, he did father seven children with six different women. Of those children, at least three of them — Richard, Jr., Elizabeth, and Rain – have been feuding with Jennifer since before Pryor’s death.
The Family Feud – Marriage, Conservatorship, and the Trust that Led to Litigation
Richard Pryor suffered from multiple sclerosis which began to deteriorate back in the 1990’s. As a result, he hired Jennifer to oversee his caregivers and act as his personal manager. Consequently, Jennifer moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1994 to take care of him and manage his affairs, in exchange for a salary and rent. In 2000, however, his son Richard, Jr. filed for conservatorship of Pryor. He alleged his father had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer make decisions for himself and complained that Jennifer limited access, at times refusing to allow Richard, Jr., to see his father. Jennifer fought back that Pryor had picked her and an accountant to make his decisions as agents under power of attorney documents, and also as co-trustees of Richard Pryor’s Trust. She contended that Pryor was well-cared for and a court-appointed conservator was not needed. The probate judge overseeing the case ruled in Jennifer’s favor.
Shortly after that, Richard Pryor and Jennifer married for the second time. In an unusual move, they applied for a “confidential” marriage certificate. Unlike most marriage certificates, this one was not made a matter of public record. Reportedly, Jennifer did not tell Pryor’s children of the marriage. Afterward, Pryor amended his trust, naming Jennifer as the primary beneficiary and the person with the right to control all of his intellectual property — including his name and image rights, and royalties from his comedy albums and performances. These changes to the trust left Jennifer in complete control, both before and after Pryor died. He passed away from a heart attack in 2005 at age 65. Estimates placed the total value of the Richard Pryor estate at around $40 million at the time.
When Pryor’s eldest children found out about the marriage and the trust changes, some of them filed suit against Jennifer, with Elizabeth leading the charge. She accused Jennifer of elder abuse, fraud, forgery, and taking advantage of Richard’s weakened mental and physical state. She filed the legal proceedings in 2006. As with the prior court proceedings, Jennifer prevailed in probate court, in large part because she was the widow.
Elizabeth then appealed to the California Court of Appeals. She argued that the marriage was the product of fraud and should be annulled. She also invoked California’s statute prohibiting gifts and bequests to caregivers. The Court of Appeals ruled that Elizabeth did not have standing to seek an annulment, because under California law, such a legal proceeding could only go forward if one of the spouses had filed the case before death. Therefore, the marriage was upheld as valid. This ruling allowed Jennifer to use an exception to the law prohibiting gifts to caregivers, if the caregiver was a spouse. Because Jennifer was legally married to Pryor, any gifts or bequests he made to her, through his trust or otherwise, were protected. Elizabeth still could have won the case if she could have convinced the court that Pryor either lacked sufficient mental capacity to make the changes to his trust, or that the changes were brought about by undue influence from Jennifer. Additionally, she could have proven that the documents were forged. But it appears the court found Elizabeth didn’t have sufficient evidence to prevail, and Elizabeth did not appeal this aspect of the ruling.
The Pryor family feud illustrates a couple of important estate planning concepts. First, it shows us the power a spouse has when it comes to questions about, or challenges to, an estate plan. It also reiterates how important it is to plan early. While the secret marriage does raise some questions, even suspicions, the fact that Richard started deferring to Jennifer over a decade prior to his death and married her several years before his death as well, swayed the court to find in Jennifer’s favor, despite the secrecy of the marriage.
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