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Parentage, and the Late Artist (Formerly) Known as Prince

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We wrote last week about the law of parentage, and how Arizona law is evolving in the modern world. Other jurisdictions, and other problems, address related issues. Surprisingly, perhaps, the probate of Prince’s estate sheds light on some of those problems.

Prince’s family history

As any rock fan of rock music or popular culture knows, Prince Rogers Nelson (the artist known as Prince) died tragically in 2016. He was 58 years old, and he apparently never signed a will or trust. He died intestate — meaning that his next of kin will share in his (considerable) estate.

Prince’s heirs stand to inherit something like $200 million, according to various sources. It should surprise no one that an estate of that size invites serious questions about who, exactly, is related to Prince.

In 1958, when Prince was born, his parents John L. Nelson and Mattie Ella Shaw Nelson were married. They had married on August 31, 1957; Prince was born on June 7, 1958. Prince’s little sister, Tyka, was born in 1960. The Nelsons stayed together for eight more years, divorcing in 1968.

In addition to his sister Tyka, Prince had five half-siblings — they were children of either his mother or father, but not both. Under Minnesota’s version of intestacy law (Arizona law would be the same on this topic), those half-siblings share an equal interest in Prince’s estate.

Though Prince’s parents’ lives were complicated, calculating his intestate heirs should not be. His estate will be divided equally among his six siblings. Or will it?

Paternity challenges

Within a few months of the start of the probate proceedings, two groups of people filed similar, but conflicting, claims. The four children of Loyal Gresham, Jr. claimed that their father was really Prince’s father, as well — and that they were among his heirs. Alfred Jackson’s daughter claimed that her father was Prince’s father, instead. All five asked the Minnesota probate court for authorization to undergo genetic testing to try to prove their relationship.

Because there were so many conflicting claims to a relationship with Prince, the probate court had already set up a protocol for blood testing. No one would have access to Prince’s genetic information, nor be permitted to submit blood testing of their own, without prior approval of the judge. The five contestants seeking to show that they were Prince’s siblings were denied permission to even undergo testing.

Why deny their requests? Because, ruled the probate judge, the Minnesota law is clear. Prince was born during his parent’s marriage. John Nelson acknowledged Prince as his son, and raised him. That made John Nelson his father, despite what blood testing might reveal. In other words, the challengers had no prospect of success.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed. In one of two rulings released earlier this month, the judges upheld the probate court’s decision. In re: Estate of Nelson, September 5, 2017.

Other claims to Prince’s fortune

But that’s not all. Two other people, descended from a man they claimed was raised by Prince’s father, thought they, too should be included in his estate. They acknowledged that they had no blood relationship to Prince, but argued that John Nelson treated Duane Nelson, Sr., as his son. The Court of Appeals summarily agreed that such a relationship was not enough.

In all, twenty-nine people had filed claims with the probate court. All of those claims were rejected. Paternity testing was to be completed on the three children of John Nelson, just to confirm their relationship. Prince’s mother’s two other children will not have to undergo testing to confirm that they are half-siblings.

Among the individuals claiming to be related to Prince: a Colorado prison inmate whose mother insisted that Prince was the father of her child. If that had been true (paternity testing apparently ruled Prince out as the father), he would have been the sole heir.

What does it mean for you?

Most of us will not leave an estate of over $200 million. Prince did, however — and the cost of the ensuing litigation will be substantial. Wouldn’t it be great if he had simply signed a will, identifying who should receive his estate?

You can avoid these kinds of problems, just by signing a will. If, for example, Prince had decided to leave his estate to named individuals (whether they were his siblings or not), the blood testing, parentage and paternity questions would be irrelevant.

At 58, there was no excuse for Prince not to have prepared a will and/or trust. Almost certainly, he did not feel his own mortality. He undoubtedly did not anticipate anything about the timing or manner of his death. Still, he should have completed his estate planning. You should, too.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.