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Bing Crosby Lawsuit Highlights Role of “Publicity Rights” in Estate Planning

Estate planning is about providing for the future. Sometimes, it’s about providing for a very distant future. For example, the famous actor and singer Bing Crosby died nearly 40 years ago, yet a California appeals court just recently issued a decision regarding property that still belongs to his estate. Even more remarkably, the other party to the case represents the estate of Crosby’s first wife, who died more than 60 years ago.

Crosby v. HLC Properties, Ltd.

Harry “Bing” Crosby, Jr., began singing professionally in the 1920s. His most famous recording, that of the Irving Berlin song “White Christmas,” reached No. 1 on the charts in 1942. Also during the 1940s, Crosby became well known as an actor, appearing with Bob Hope in a series of movies, and winning an Academy Award in 1944.

Crosby married his first wife, Wilma Wyatt-known professionally as the singer and actress Dixie Lee-in 1930. The couple had four children before Wyatt died of cancer in 1952. Wyatt’s last will and testament directed that all community property from her marriage should be placed in trust for the benefit of her children.

Crosby remarried five years later. His second wife, Olive Kathryn Grandstaff, known professionally as Kathryn Grant, is still living. When Crosby died in 1977, his will left his estate to a marital trust for Kathryn Grant’s benefit.

Crosby’s business interests were assigned after his death to a new company, HLC Holdings. Among the intellectual property assigned to HLC were Crosby’s “publicity rights” under California law. Since the 1970s, California has recognized a person’s right in his or her “name, likeness and identity.” But the law has changed considerably since the time of Crosby’s death.
In 1996, the trust representing Wilma Wyatt’s estate sued HLC Holdings, alleging it was entitled to a share of the royalties for Crosby’s publicity rights, as some of it represented the “community property” of Crosby and Wyatt at the time of her death in 1952. The parties settled this litigation in 1999. The Wyatt trust released its claims in exchange for $1.5 million.

In 1985, the California legislature declared that a celebrity who died within the previous 70 years could transfer his or her publicity rights via a will or trust. But in 2007, federal judges addressing claims related to the late Marilyn Monroe said the California law did not apply to wills signed before the law was enacted (January 1, 1985). That would include the Crosby estate, as he died eight years before the law came into force.

But in 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a new law that overruled the court decisions and retroactively declared that any will or trust executed prior to 1985 could dispose of publicity rights. Based on this amendment, the Wyatt trust filed a new claim against HLC, arguing the 1999 settlement did not account for this newly created right.

The Court of Appeals, however, didn’t see it that way. Reversing a trial court’s decision in favor of the Wyatt trust, the appeals court said the 2008 amendment “only clarified existing law,” and did not create a new substantive right. And since the 1999 settlement included a release of all existing legal claims against the Crosby estate, the Wyatt trust was entitled to no further compensation.

Taking Stock of Intellectual Property

Publicity rights are an unusual form of intellectual property recognized in California. Other types of intellectual property, such as copyrights and patents, are creatures of federal law. If your estate includes any type of intellectual property, it’s important to consult with an experienced California estate planning attorney who can advise you on the best way to dispose of such intangible items in your will or trust. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today if you have any questions.

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