More than 20 attorneys representing potential heirs to Prince's estate showed up at the Carver County Courthouse in Chaska on Monday to debate how Minnesota's probate laws interact with laws for determining parentage.
They left without answers — and concerns that delays could cost the estate.
Carver County Judge Kevin Eide said he and the lawyers were struggling to understand the complexities of how the laws might affect who gets a piece of Prince's bounty, estimated between $100 million and $300 million before taxes. The last time the appellate courts weighed in on the laws was 2006. But legislative revisions in 2010 leave the matter open to challenges.
"This case is perhaps unique in the state of Minnesota," Eide said at the start of the hearing. "In many ways, we are in unchartered water here."
The judge said he would do his best to sort things out as soon as possible so as not to "dissipate" the estate's value, and likely would seek an expedited review from the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
"I want to do it right because it's important to a lot of people," he said.
Five of Prince's siblings attended the hearing, which drew a crowd of reporters anxious to see who will lay claim to the estate. Prince died April 21 from an accidental overdose of the painkiller fentanyl. His body was found that morning in an elevator at his Paisley Park complex in Chanhassen.
No will has been found in the two months since, meaning Minnesota law will determine which of the many claimants will be in line to collect.
David Crosby, an attorney for Bremer Trust, which is managing the estate as special administrator, told Eide that Bremer has gone through thousands of boxes of documents in four locations and has yet to find evidence of a will, "though there is some indication to the contrary based on some correspondence."
Crosby indicated that the search for a will probably would not continue much longer.
"We've looked under every box lid," Crosby said. "The inquiry is coming to a close very soon."
'Not that complex'
With no known children, Prince's estate could be split among his sister, Tyka Nelson, and at least five half-siblings, four of whom attended Monday's hearing. To date, more than a dozen potential heirs have filed claims.
Crosby used a large flow chart to explain his interpretation of the laws governing parentage and heirship. Prince has no known surviving children or parents who would be first and second in line as heirs under Minnesota law, he said. Next in line would be his surviving siblings, and the progeny of any deceased siblings.
"It's really not that complex," he said. "The key to our matter is, who is the genetic father" of Prince and his potential heirs.
Paternity can be established several ways. The mother, child or father can do so, but must act within three years of a child's birth. Alternatively, a court order — such as in a divorce proceeding or probate case — will be considered a final determination. Finally, genetic testing may be used if paternity hasn't been otherwise established.
Only one claimant has gone through genetic testing — Carlin Q. Williams — who is serving time at a federal prison in Colorado for illegal transportation of a firearm. The results of his test were filed under seal with the court, but published reports, citing sources familiar with the results, suggest that Williams has no genetic connection to Prince.
Prince's siblings, meanwhile, don't require genetic testing.
Darcell Johnston claims that she and Prince share a father — but it's not John Lewis Nelson, who Prince always referred to as his father and whose paternity was recorded by judges in John Lewis Nelson's divorce and probate papers. Johnston's attorney, Cameron Parkhurst, argued that the law should allow the group of heirs to be expanded to consider her claim without excluding the claims of Prince's siblings, whose paternity was established in such court decrees.
"The law does not permit latecomer dads — even if true," he said. "There's no basis to test the new father because there can only be one genetic father [of Prince]."
Complex paternity issues
Celiza Braganca represents two descendants of Duane Joseph Nelson Sr., who died in 2011. Braganca urged Eide to take time to resolve the complex paternity issues in the case.
Prince referred to the late Duane Nelson Sr. as a half-brother, and John Lewis Nelson raised Duane as a son. But Duane's name is not among the siblings listed on the probate petition filed by Tyka Nelson — Prince's only full sibling. Neither is he listed among the heirs in John Lewis Nelson's probate documents.
Neither Tyka Nelson nor her attorneys have said publicly why Duane Nelson Sr.'s name was excluded from the probate petitions. Sources say it's because she doesn't believe that he and Prince shared a parent.
"I assume it was an oversight," said Andrew Stoltmann, who represents Duane Nelson Sr.'s daughter, Brianna Nelson, and a granddaughter, Veronica Nelson. "Those were emotional times. Sometimes things get left off," he said.
Stoltmann has filed a birth certificate for Duane Nelson Sr. showing John Lewis Nelson as his father.
Brian Dillon, an attorney for Tyka Nelson, urged Eide to expedite his determination of Prince's heirs as quickly as possible. Delays cost the estate money, and Bremer Trust has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the value for the heirs, he said.
Ken Abdo, who represents three of Prince's half-siblings, underscored that point, arguing that there's no need for Eide to submit his decision for review by the Court of Appeals.
"Delay can damage the estate," he said. "That is a reality of this business."
Staff writer Emma Nelson contributed to this report.