Prince might have released nearly 40 studio albums over the course of his decades-long career, but the prolific artist had long hinted that he’d written and recorded much, much more. “I’ve never said this before, but I didn’t always give the record companies the best song,” Prince told Rolling Stone in a 2014 interview published after his untimely death on April 21. Now it appears that the future of that never-before-heard material could rest in the hands of his surviving relatives, who are in court to determine what the pop star left behind—his fortune is reportedly estimated to be worth at least $250 million—and who will control his substantial legacy.
It’s shaping up to be one of the highest-profile celebrity estate cases since Michael Jackson (who died in 2009), one that experts say may take years to sort out. “When people have big estates, people contest all the time because there’s a lot of money involved,” says Jeffrey P. Scott, an estate attorney in St. Paul. Typically those contests come from associates with even the slightest link to an artist: “It’s the ex-manager, it’s the girlfriend, the guy that got fired, the driver—everybody,” Scott says. He adds, in reference to Prince’s case, “But there were over 12 attorneys [in court] representing the six siblings, so that’s ominous.”
At issue is the question of whether Prince left behind a will. His sister, Tyka Nelson, contends that he did not; in that event, under Minnesota law, Nelson as well as Prince’s five half siblings would likely become the beneficiaries of his estate and future royalties. At a May 2 hearing, Carver County District Court judge Kevin Eide did not rule out the possibility of a will still surfacing. “The court is not finding that there is no will,” he said, “but that no will has yet been found.” Per Nelson’s request, Eide appointed Bremer Trust, an affiliate of Prince’s longtime bank, to temporarily administer the musician’s estate.
Bremer reportedly has already begun examining a vault at Paisley Park, Prince’s residence in Chanhassen, Minn. (Friends say Prince was planning to turn the property into a Graceland-style museum.) Attorney Donald David, who has represented the estates of Tupac Shakur and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, expects that some but not all of this music will be fit for public consumption. “I know from my past experience that very often some of the material needs significant editing,” David says. “But you’re going to see unreleased Prince albums—if [the estate] is properly managed—for the next two decades.”
So what exactly is in the vault? Prince himself had said he was sitting on solo material that could rival his finest work, as well as albums from Purple Rain backing band the Revolution and onetime protégées Vanity 6. For Owen Husney, who managed Prince early in his career, the question isn’t how much material is in the vault but the manner in which it will be released. He hopes the beneficiaries will let music professionals or former Prince collaborators have a say in how the catalog is shared with the world, given the icon’s notoriously strong feelings about copyright and artistic integrity.
“The heirs are probably all very good people, but they’re not music executives,” Husney says. “My worry is that unless somebody handles it with the exact same mind frame he had, you’ll see some of these songs in a toothpaste commercial.”
Additional reporting by Char Adams and Lindsay Kimble.