the Michael Jackson Trust is likely worth more than $1 billion, with disbursements to the kids in stages.”
That number could change if the IRS has anything to do with it. The agency’s lawyers are taking the executors to trial, set to begin sometime this month in U.S. Tax Court in Los Angeles. The IRS intends to prove that $702 million of that inheritance is owed in penalties and back taxes. The crux of the case is the disputed value of Jackson’s name and likeness, which is to say the right to use his visage on everything from coffee cups to baseball caps. An estate tax filing is supposed to be a snapshot of the person’s assets on the day of his expiration, and under California law that includes the value of a star’s name and likeness. The IRS claims Jackson’s should have been valued at $434 million. The estate claims that it was worth a mere $2,105, implying that his image had been rendered all but worthless by stories about skin bleaching, his obsession with plastic surgery, prescription drug abuse, odd parenting choices—such as covering his children’s faces in black veils or Spider-Man masks in public—and allegations that he molested young boys who visited Neverland.
Celebrity estate lawyers are watching closely. It felt like a record year for the deaths of icons in 2016, with the passing of Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Muhammad Ali, and Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher. Fisher’s December departure prompted reports that Walt Disney was rushing to make a deal to use her digital likeness in future Star Wars movies. (Disney denied this.) The Jackson case signals that tax examiners see enhanced value in a deceased star’s face and name as technology and social media open up novel paths to profit, such as the ability to conjure up appearances using computer-generated imagery and voice software.