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Not just any mediator takes on dispute over MLK's estate

Litigation is not the only way to resolve a probate dispute, especially when family members are pitted against one another. Mediation is a less expensive and, in theory, a less contentious way to settle a matter, in part because there is no right or wrong answer. Mediation is about finding common ground with the help of a neutral third party.

It is the rare case that enlists former President Jimmy Carter as the mediator, but an argument among siblings over two of their father's possessions has done just that. The siblings in question are the three surviving children of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., though, and the artifacts are the late civil rights leader's traveling bible and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.

According to the Georgia Secretary of State's website, the King estate was incorporated in 1993 with King's widow and four children as directors. The corporation took over the business of protecting King's legacy, particularly any intellectual property rights for King's works. King's widow and one of his daughters died in 2006 and 2007, leaving the estate in the control of two sons and one daughter.

A quick aside: Anyone can establish a business entity -- limited liability company, corporation, etc. -- and transfer the ownership of the assets to the business. The move especially makes sense for estates of public figures like King and Marilyn Monroe because of the potential for income generated by the use of the deceased's name, image or, as here, copyrighted material. A significant advantage of this approach is that decision-making processes are laid out in the articles of incorporation and bylaws. That does not mean, though, that litigation between directors doesn't happen.

This dispute traces back to 1995, when the original five board members agreed to sign over their personal rights to items inherited from King to the estate. When the brothers found a buyer for the bible and the Nobel medal a few years ago, their sister refused to sell. The brothers then accused their sister of sequestering the bible and Nobel medal in contravention of the 1995 agreement.

Of course, nothing is ever that straightforward. We'll explain in our next post.

Source: WTOL, "Carter to mediate dispute over MLK Bible, Nobel Peace Prize," Kate Brumback, Oct. 5, 2015

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