A Not-So-Happy Accident: Bob Ross’s Estate Planning Failures Leave His Son With Next to Nothing—Part 2

Bob Ross has earned global recognition for his iconic landscape paintings and his bushy hair, soothing baritone voice, and folksy demeanor. After 26 years since his death in 1995, he has become more popular even with today’s generation.

His famous philosophy in both painting and life was that there “were no mistakes in life… just happy little accidents. But sadly, the accidents he met at the end of his life were not that little. As documented in the recent Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, Bob’s failure to coordinate his business agreements with his estate plan left his only son largely unable to benefit from his fame and fortune.

Bob’s planning failures led to an ugly court battle between his former business partners and his family, who were fighting for control of the lucrative intellectual property rights to the Bob Ross brand. And while Bob’s son Steve ultimately lost his fight to benefit from the business empire built on his father’s persona and painting skills, here in part two, we’ll explain the steps you can take to ensure that your loved ones don’t suffer the same fate and are able to fully benefit from all of your business assets following your death.

Ensure Your Business Agreements Are In Accord With Your Estate Plan

As we learned last week, although Bob intended to leave all of his intellectual property rights to his son, Steve, and half-brother, Jimmie Cox, and he even changed his estate plan to transfer those rights to them, the court ruled that Bob couldn’t transfer those rights because Bob didn’t own those rights to begin with. The court ruled that Bob had transferred all rights to his intellectual property to Bob Ross Inc. (BRI) during his lifetime via oral contracts, and therefore it didn’t matter what his estate plan said, because those rights weren’t Bob’s to give away. 

Bob started BRI in 1985, with his wife Jane Ross, along with husband and wife Walter and Annette Kowalski. The four were initially equal partners in the corporation, but following Jane’s death in 1992, the bylaws of BRI required that Jane’s share in the company be divided equally among the surviving three partners. As a result, Bob was reduced to owning just one-third of the company that bore his name and likeness, and this was the structure in place upon Bob’s death in 1995.

Bob’s situation is fairly common among business owners. When business owners first create their governing documents—operating agreements, bylaws, partnership agreements, etc.—they often aren’t thinking ahead about what would happen to their business and its assets when they die or if they become incapacitated. And because of this, they don’t take the proper precautions to ensure that their business assets are properly protected by their estate plan should something happen to them.

In other cases—and as we saw with Bob—business owners falsely assume that their estate plan will override any business agreements they are party to, and therefore any assets they pass to their loved ones via their will or trust will transfer to their intended beneficiaries regardless of what’s in their business agreements. However, this is false, and in fact, the very opposite is true. Whether it’s a partnership, LLC, corporation, or some other business structure, your estate plan does not have the power to modify, undo, or override any business agreements to which you are a party. 

The bottom line: When it comes to the ownership of business assets, the legal agreements governing the ownership rights of a business are what determines who owns the business and its assets upon the death of an owner, regardless of what your estate plan says. This is why it’s essential that you make certain that any business agreements you enter into are in coordination with your estate plan. We can help you do this as long as we know about all of your business holdings, including your intellectual property and business entities, when we handle your estate planning with you.

As we saw with Bob’s case, failing to properly coordinate your business agreements with your estate plan can lead to disastrous consequences. Fortunately, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can ensure that your business agreements are fully coordinated and integrated with your estate plan, so all of your business assets, including any intellectual property you own, will pass seamlessly to your loved ones in the event of your death or incapacity. 

Whether your business is just getting started or you’ve been in business for years, here are the steps you need to take to avoid making the same not-so-happy mistakes that affected Bob Ross and his family.

The Right Way To Plan

The ideal time to coordinate your business agreements with your estate plan is when you first launch your business. This way you can address the ownership rights to all of your business assets, including any intellectual property, from the very start and incorporate those ownership rights into your company’s governing documents.

If your business has multiple owners, you’ll want to enter into the process of making agreements with your partners, and not just rely on form documents, or sign documents you have not fully understood. All too often, business agreements are created via form or template documents that do not give any real consideration to your most valuable assets. If that’s the case for you, now is not too late to make a change—but tomorrow might be.

Make certain that the governing documents address the ownership rights to all of the company’s assets, including any intellectual property, intentionally. And be sure to consider what happens to the company, and its assets, upon a sale, death, or disability of each owner of the company. 

To ensure your intellectual property (and all of the assets of your business) are properly considered in your governing documents, you should consult with a trusted attorney like me, your Personal Family Lawyer®, who has experience in both intellectual property and estate planning (or can bring in the proper intellectual property advisors), to ensure that everything is documented and in alignment with your wishes, and your most valuable assets are properly handled.

If you are like Bob and many other business owners and you failed to coordinate your company’s governing documents with your estate plan at the start of your business, you’ll need to hire a lawyer like us to review your company’s existing governing documents to determine how the documents address the ownership and succession of the company’s assets. And if you haven’t created your company’s governing documents yet, now is the time to put these essential legal agreements in place.

When reviewing your governing documents, you’ll want to ensure that they properly address the ownership rights to your company’s intellectual property and other assets upon an owner’s death or incapacity, as well as upon the sale or dissolution of the business. If upon reviewing the governing documents, you find that the ownership rights are not in alignment with your estate planning goals, it may be possible to renegotiate the agreement with the other owners and amend the documents to better fit with your aims.

If renegotiating the ownership rights proves infeasible, at least your Personal Family Lawyer® will be aware of this fact, and we may be able to come up with an alternative solution to transfer ownership of these assets to your heirs. It’s certainly not the ideal situation, but it’s far better to learn this now while you are still alive, rather than learning it after your death as happened with Bob’s son Steve.

Succession Planning

Once you’ve ensured the proper distribution of your intellectual property and other business assets through your company’s governing documents, you must then use your estate plan to protect and pass on the ownership rights to your share of the business interests you own. This often takes place through a coordinated business succession planning process.

Unfortunately, far too few business owners take the time to prepare for their company’s continued success following their retirement, death, or incapacity. Yet, creating a comprehensive succession plan as part of your overall estate plan is just as crucial as any other planning you do for your business, if not more so.

As we saw with Bob Ross, not planning for the future of your business after you are no longer in the picture can have terrible consequences for your family if (and when) something should happen to you. Whether you exit your business with a sale, your retirement, your incapacity, or as a result of your death, there will come a point when it’s time for you to exit your business. And a succession plan is designed to ensure that your company will continue to prosper once you are no longer running the show.

This article is a service of the Law Office of Aisha M. Williams, APC, serving San Diego, Carlsbad, Escondido, and all of California. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a one-hour Life and Legacy Planning Session, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office or clicking the scheduling link on this site to schedule your Life and Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $350 session at no charge.