An almost ubiquitous figure in pop culture, Bob Ross has been immortalized through references as broad-spanning as t-shirts quoting his famous line, “happy little accidents”, to a cameo in the Marvel action hero movie, Deadpool.
Bob Ross’ long-running series, “The Joy of Painting”, which ran from 1983 until his untimely death in 1994, resulted in the production of thousands of original artworks. The ownership of this substantial art collection was left in the hands of Bob Ross Inc. (“BRI”), as discussed in a previous blog.
Recently, a documentary was released on Netflix, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed”, bringing the estate of Bob Ross back into the public eye. It explores behind the scenes Bob Ross’ legacy, delving into the disputes surrounding the use of his name and likeness following his death.
Our previous blog on Bob Ross’ estate explained that, following his death, ownership and control of BRI fell to his business partners, Annette and Walt Kowalski. Bob Ross was known for his easy-going and kind-hearted personality. However, the documentary exposes tensions in the inner business workings of the multi-million dollar empire that was the Bob Ross trademark.
By the end of his life, Bob Ross was allegedly at odds with the Kowalskis and their vision for his brand. Through his will, Bob Ross tried to create a trust in the name of his brother, Jimmie, and son, Steve, that would give them control of his interest in BRI, as well as complete ownership of his name and likeness.
Bob Ross was known for his ‘alla prima’ technique of wet-on-wet paint, which allowed him to be creative in ‘using’ his mistakes to create solutions. Unfortunately for the beneficiaries of the trust, the ink on a contract dries quickly, and the partnership agreement with the Kowalskis was one ‘mistake’ Bob Ross could not fix.
The litigation that followed his death resulted in a settlement granting the Kowalskis complete control of BRI pursuant to the terms of its partnership agreement. Steve, the son, attempted to renew the litigation in 2019 on grounds of an undisclosed term of the trust agreement, granting him exclusive rights to the name and likeness of Bob Ross. The US federal court ruled in favour of BRI, as the plaintiff could not own property that the trust never actually had a legal right to.
The outcome was no doubt disheartening for Steve. However, the law upheld what was ostensibly a valid and enforceable contract, the partnership agreement.
Business vehicles such as partnerships and corporations are commonplace. However, the articles of incorporation of a corporation, for example, can restrict the sale and/or transfer of shares. In entering any kind of business structure, it is always wise to plan ahead. Where so desired, make sure your beneficiaries can benefit from your interest in a business, and remember your estate may not have the power to change or undo contracts you were a party to.
Thank you for reading and have a great day!
Suzana Popovic-Montag & Raphael Leitz
Recently, Stuart Clark blogged about the film Knives Out and its relation to estate law. Another popular movie, Murder Mystery, which aired on Netflix last year, also offered some thoughtful considerations for those interested in estate law. The film, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, was the most popular title on Netflix in 2019. In its first three days on the streaming service, it was viewed by 30,869,863 accounts.
Just as Stuart gave a spoiler alert in his blog, this blog also contains spoilers.
In Murder Mystery, Nick Spitz and his wife, Audrey Spitz, embark on a trip to Europe. On the plane, Audrey meets billionaire Charles Cavendish, who invites them to join him on his family’s yacht for a party to celebrate Malcolm Quince’s (Charles’ elderly billionaire uncle’s) upcoming wedding to Charles’ former fiancée. While on the yacht, Malcolm announces that he will be changing his will to leave everything to his soon-to-be wife. After this surprise announcement, the lights suddenly go out, a scream is heard, and when the lights come back on, the guests are surprised to see that Malcolm has been killed. Nick and Audrey are framed for Malcolm’s death. To prove their innocence, they must find Malcolm’s real killer.
Throughout the movie, French inheritance law is heavily emphasized. As summarized by Nick in the film: “The French law states that a man’s estate must be divided equally amongst his children.” This type of estate plan is referred to as a “forced heirship.” France’s succession law is based on the Napoleonic Code introduced in the 1800s. Under France’s succession law, children are reserved a certain portion of their parents’ estate. If a parent has one child, at least one-half of the estate must be reserved for them. If a parent has two children, at least two-thirds of the estate must be reserved for them and if a parent has three or more children, at least three-quarters of the estate must be reserved for them.
Those who have watched the film may find themselves wondering if the succession laws in Ontario are similar to that of France. Unlike French inheritance law, in Ontario, a testator does not have an obligation to leave a share of their estate to an adult, independent child. Under subsection 58(1) of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”), a testator is only under an obligation to provide support for their “dependants”.
According to subsection 57(1) of the SLRA, a “dependant” includes the deceased’s spouse, parent, child, brother or sister “to whom the deceased was providing support or was under a legal obligation to provide support immediately before his or her death.” Therefore, if a testator was not under a legal obligation to provide for an adult child, that child may not have an entitlement to share in their parent’s estate.
Just something to think about the next time you watch the film.
Thanks for reading!
Ian Hull and Celine Dookie
Trends seem obvious in hindsight – but anticipating them before others has made many people very wealthy. They’re the ones who bought Apple shares for $1 in 2003 and watched the price exceed $200 in 2018. Or the ones who bought Blockbuster Video stock in the 1980s and sold it at its peak in 2002 before its 10-year decline into Netflix-induced irrelevance.
We’ve seen this firsthand, having been involved in the estates of many who “got in early”, moved ahead of the curve and capitalized.
While societal norms and consumer habits are always changing, not every change is one you can cash in on. For example, manual razor sales from stores fell by 5.1% year-over-year – their third straight year of decline. A key reason behind the decline is a simple one: people are shaving less.
Razor manufacturer Gillette says that men shaved an average of 3.2 times per week, compared to 3.7 times per week a decade ago. Stubble is now an acceptable look and more men are growing out their beards. CNN wrote about it recently.
While this is certainly a trend, razors continue to be sold and shaving product companies are adapting (with strategies such as lower prices and a move into beard grooming products). It’s likely not a game-changer.
Breakfast cereals are the same. Sales are down 11% over the past five years as people look for more natural, healthy alternatives – or the takeout convenience of breakfast sandwiches. But take one look down the grocery aisle and you’ll see that cereals are a long way from becoming the Blockbuster Video of food.
So, what change will be monumental?
Where should we be looking to find the next “big thing”, like Amazon and Uber? Like you, I don’t have a crystal ball, but here are my two picks for big changes that could disrupt our world and create opportunities.
- Automobiles: More than 30,000 people continue to die each year in U.S. auto accidents (Canada is typically about 10% of these numbers, so about the same rate). People will look back at the 20th and 21st centuries as barbaric for the number of lives lost crashing metal into metal. We know that driverless cars (and virtually risk-free driving) are coming, but what else will change (auto insurance, in-car entertainment options, ownership models, a declining need for personal injury lawyers)? There could be many related growth trends.
- Farming and meat: Vegetarianism and veganism are growing – along with our ability to manufacture artificial meat. That combination may be enough to turn the traditional food industry on its head. The trick is to identify the companies that could potentially dominate if the trend to less real meat continues.
There are many other possibilities of course. Have you spotted any? Are you moving ahead of the curve?
Thanks for reading!