What Bobbi Kristina Brown's death can teach us about estate planning

The tragedy of Whitney Houston's daughter is even more heartbreaking because poor planning played such a critical role

By Danielle and Andy Mayoras

Jul 30, 2015 @ 11:24 am EST

After a six-month coma, the life of Bobby Brown's and Whitney Houston's daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown has tragically ended. Just how tragic her short life really was may not be known for some time. But the details that have emerged are nothing short of heart-wrenching, if the allegations of a recently filed lawsuit filed on behalf of Ms. Brown prove to be true.

According to that lawsuit, Ms. Houston's millions were at the heart of this tragedy. But what role did they really play in Ms. Brown's death?

It was on Jan. 31, 2015, that Ms. Brown was found unresponsive, unconscious and face down in a bathtub. That was nearly three years from the day her mother famously drowned, also in a bathtub. Ms. Brown reportedly suffered severe brain damage and was placed into a medically induced coma.

While various relatives made contradictory public statements over her condition, they cooperated enough to permit her father, Bobby Brown, and her aunt, Pat Houston, to serve together as Ms. Brown's co-guardians, managing her medical care and decisions.

Instead of a relative, the court in charge of Ms. Brown's case appointed an attorney from Atlanta, Bedelia Hargrove, to serve as her conservator. As conservator, Ms. Hargrove was able to manage Ms. Brown's finances and make financial decisions for her.


In late June — just weeks after being appointed in that role — Ms. Hargrove started a new lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Brown against Nick Gordon. The lawsuit accused Mr. Gordon of assault and battery, fraud, stalking and more — claiming that Mr. Gordon was motivated by the millions of dollars held in trust for Ms. Brown through Ms. Houston's will. Specifically, Ms. Hargrove alleged that Mr. Gordon perpetrated a "scheme to benefit from her wealth," including "routinely transferring a large portion of Brown's funds" into his own bank account, without her permission.

Mr. Gordon questioned Ms. Brown's ability to access the trust money, and also threatened and stalked one of the trustees, leading to a restraining order, the lawsuit states. Even worse, the suit alleges that Mr. Gordon once punched Ms. Brown in the face, knocking out a tooth, and dragged her upstairs by her hair.

Ms. Hargrove's court filing claims that Mr. Gordon engaged in a loud argument with Ms. Brown, which ended with her face down in the bathtub on Jan. 31, unresponsive, unconscious and with a swollen mouth and another tooth knocked out. The lawsuit states that after Ms. Brown was placed into a medically induced coma, Mr. Gordon stole $11,000 from her bank account. Ms. Hargrove's lawsuit included claims that Mr. Gordon was guilty of assault, battery, conversion and more — and that he should be liable for more than $10 million.

Now that Ms. Brown died on July 26, multiple media sources are reporting that Mr. Gordon is being investigated for the murder of Ms. Brown, with criminal charges expected to be filed.

Mr. Gordon denies the allegations and reportedly is heartbroken over Ms. Brown's death. He claims that drugs and alcohol are to blame for Ms. Brown's death, not violence. Reportedly, the initial autopsy finding might support Mr. Gordon's position, although the autopsy's value in this case is questionable given how much time passed between the date Ms. Brown was discovered and her death.


Because the money can no longer pass to Ms. Brown, the terms of Ms. Houston's will state that any money left from her estate will pass onto her two brothers and her mother. Bobby Brown was also named under the will, but his share was automatically revoked when he and Ms. Houston divorced.

Media outlets report that Ms. Houston's estate had a value of $20 million. When Ms. Houston initially died with more debt than assets, the increase in sales from Ms. Houston's songs and performances brought in the estimated $20 million sum, on top of paying the debts. While the accuracy of these figures cannot be confirmed, obviously there was a lot of money at stake in Ms. Houston's estate. And Ms. Brown was the sole beneficiary.

Ten percent of the estate money passed to Ms. Brown when she turned 21, with another sum in the neighborhood of $3 million scheduled for her 25th birthday. In addition, the trust established by Ms. Houston's will also specified that the rest of the money could be used for anything else the trustees felt were advisable for Ms. Brown, including medical care, acquiring a home, starting a new business or becoming engaged or marrying.

Given the great expense of keeping Ms. Brown on life support for the last six months, and depending on how much was covered by health insurance, much of the remaining millions may have already been spent. How much is left is anyone's guess at this point.


Before this tragedy happened, there were millions of dollars available for Ms. Brown's needs. Initially, the named trustees — her aunt and grandmother — feared that Ms. Brown could not handle so much money at such a young age. They filed a court proceeding asking to rewrite the will based on what they felt were Ms. Houston's true intentions — that the money be safeguarded for Ms. Brown until she was older. In the filing, the trustees expressed their concerns that Ms. Brown's well-being may be jeopardized if she was allowed to have so much money starting at the young age of 21.

While that court filing certainly seems to have been justified in hindsight, it did not work. Shortly after filing it, the trustees withdrew it. Probate courts are required to follow the terms of the actual will or trust documents, not what the person who died might have otherwise intended. So justified or not, the trustees were not able to delay distributing the money to Ms. Brown even though they clearly had concerns.

Would this tragedy have been averted if Ms. Brown's distributions were delayed until she was older? While that's a good question, the reality is it would be very hard if not impossible to compose a trust that could completely protect someone from the type of behaviors alleged in Ms. Hargrove's lawsuit against Mr. Gordon. And even if the distribution provisions were delayed until Ms. Brown were older, the will language still allowed for the trustees to give her money when she needed it. The outcome may very well have been the same regardless of the timing of the mandatory distributions — especially if Mr. Gordon is innocent of the allegations against him.


One thing is clear — inheriting trust money at a young age can have serious negative consequences. Ms. Houston's will was done in 1993, specifying how a trust would be created after she died for any children she may have. Ms. Houston never updated the will after that, and she did not create a living trust document that could have better addressed these concerns.

This is not to cast blame on Ms. Houston's will for Ms. Brown's death. Again, if Mr. Gordon really is guilty of assault and battery that resulted in her death, as Ms. Hargrove's lawsuit alleges, that could have happened no matter what estate planning Ms. Houston had done. Mr. Gordon was motivated by money — according to the allegations — and Ms. Houston should have and could have better protected that money with improved estate-planning documents.

Hopefully others can use this tragedy to remind themselves of the importance of creating and updating proper estate-planning documents that help beneficiaries, instead of passing along substantial sums of money in a way that could lead to more harm than good. This lesson is important not only for those who have millions. Even $50,000 in the hands of a 21-year-old can be problematic.

Good estate planning helps beneficiaries receive money in a manner — and at a time in their lives — it can do the most good. The tragedy of Ms. Brown was made all the more tragic because it appears that Ms. Houston's poor estate planning played such a critical role.

Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!" and attorneys with Barron Rosenberg Mayoras & Mayoras, PC. You can reach them at [email protected].

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