In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and fatally wounded. At the time of his death, King was 39-years-old and had roughly $30,000 dollars to his name. Today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is widely known as one of the most prominent and influential civil rights leaders in American history. As such, his personal effects and writings are worth far more today than during his lifetime.
Not surprisingly, King did not have a will when he died. Nor had he established any sort of estate plan. As such, his assets went through probate and the remainder passed to his surviving wife and children. Today, however, as the significance of Dr. King’s legacy continues to grow, so too does the value of any materials connected to him.
Unfortunately, because there was no will, many of the personal materials and items that did not pass directly to Mrs. King and her children are now subjects in legal disputes. For example, the son of King’s personal secretary currently retains ownership of several letters written by Dr. King. The historical and monetary significance of these documents is great and the King family disputes they are entitled to the documents. To further complicate matters, a corporation which was established to administrate matters related to Dr. King is also vying for ownership of the letters and documents.
The son of Dr. King’s late secretary contends the letters were given to his mother by Dr. King as gifts. Proving this, however, is nearly impossible as no will or written documentation exists to confirm the letters were in fact gifts.
While the circumstances of this case are somewhat unique, similar disputes often arise between family members and friends over the personal effects of a loved one. In such cases, hurt feelings and unnecessary legal action can be avoided by bequeathing these items directly to individuals via a will.
Source: Times Herald-Record, “Protecting your Future: King estate suit reminds us to put it in writing,” Bonnie Kraham, March 14, 2013