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Probate and Estate Litigation Blog

Belafonte sues MLK's estate; claims right to sell artifacts

The famous singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, a friend of the late Martin Luther King Jr. and his family, has sued the estate of the Reverend King after the estate supposedly prevented Belafonte from selling off some historic artifacts that once belonged to King.

Belafonte claims that he is the legitimate owner of three documents, two of them speeches written by Dr. King himself. Belafonte says that one speech was left behind in his home after Dr. King had been working on it, and the other speech, which was found on him after he had been shot and killed, was a gift that had always been intended for Belafonte but which wound up in the hands of another friend and co-worker of King's for a number of years.

Belafonte claims that King's widow gave him the last document, a sympathy letter from the President on the occasion of King's tragic death, about 10 years ago after she visited Belafonte's home.

Belafonte tried to sell these documents at auction in 2008, but the heirs to Dr. King's estate stopped the sale, which has been postponed until the estate and Belafonte can resolve their differences. Belafonte's suit seeks an order determining that he is the owner of the documents and also seeks monetary damages. Belafonte's argument is that these documents were gifts to him.

One issue that may arise during a contested estate administration is whether a person received a piece of property by gift. Usually, if the person can prove that his or her dead friend or relative gave them a piece of property, he or she will be allowed to keep that property. However, proving whether a particular asset was a gift can be tricky, and in experienced professional knowledgeable in estate litigation may therefore be of valuable assistance.

Source: USA Today "Belafonte sues Martin Luther King Jr. estate," Oct. 15, 2013

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