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Musical Master, Estate Planning Disaster Vol. 2: Frank Zappa

Dweezil, Diva, Ahmet and Moon: Sibling Rivalry and Family Trusts

Frank Zappa died in 1993 leaving a widow, Gail, four children (Dweezil, Diva, Ahmet and Moon) and an imposing musical legacy.  Unfortunately, his children have fought hard over the rights to their dad’s name, likeness and songs like Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow, Willie the Pimp, Titties and Beer, and my favorite: Broken Hearts are for Assholes.  Don’t let the irreverence fool you, he was a great musician.

Recently, Dweezil and Ahmet exchanged acrimonious open letters with one another regarding a dispute over whether Dweezil can use the name “Zappa Plays Zappa” for his upcoming tour.  As Ahmet characterized it in a post on his Facebook page: “Now we are becoming “that family”—the spoiled brats who are arguing in public about who deserves what.”

Nobody wants their kids and family to turn into “that” family, fighting over their stuff, and having  sour relationships or no relationship at all.  The way you structure your estate plan can go along way to either set your family up for failure or success in this regard.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the Zappa kids were set up for success.

After Frank Zappa’s death, the Zappa Family Trust was set up to manage his estate and musical legacy.  It appears that his widow, Gail, was the original trustee, but has since passed away.  Trusts are ubiquitous in estate planning.  They are an entity that holds property for the benefit of your spouse, children, grandchildren or any other people you choose as beneficiaries.  They can be extremely useful if you die leaving minor children, if your estate merits an estate tax strategy or if you have substantial assets that you wish to leave to individuals who are not, accustomed to managing substantial assets.

But, you can easily pit your family against itself if you do not carefully select the roles they play in a trust.  There are three key roles:

  • The settlor or grantor who is the person that establishes the trust and puts property into it.
  • The trustee, who is like the manager of the trust. The trustee(s) make decisions about how the property is managed and doled-out based on the guidelines stated in the trust documents.  The trustee is like the gatekeeper to the money or property held in trust.
  • The beneficiary or beneficiaries. Beneficiaries are the people who you intend to benefit with the property held in trust. Beneficiaries enjoy the property in the trust and receive money from the trust.

Hindsight is always 20/20, as they say.  But, the current structure of the Zappa Family Trust is not doing the Zappa kids any favors on the family harmony front.  It appears Ahmet and Diva are the trustees.  All four of the children are beneficiaries–but not in equal shares.  The kids shares are as follows: Ahmet (30%), Diva (30%), Dweezil (20%) and Moon (20%).  I can’t comment on whether this was preordained in Frank Zappa’s estate plan or if the current situation is the result of decisions made by Gail when she was the Trustee.  But I can say that the Zappa kids aren’t set up to get along.

It is a rare child that won’t chafe under his or her sibling’s thumb.  My siblings and I get along great, but I don’t think I would want either one of them in charge of deciding how to distribute or allocate “my” money if I was a trust beneficiary.  So, if you want your kids to continue to get along, making one child the trustee where other children are beneficiaries is almost never a good idea.  The same can be true where a settlor installs a second spouse as a trustee over a trust that benefits his or her children from a first marriage and vice versa.  In these situations, a professional corporate trustee, or a trusted third party is often a better choice.

Carefully considering the human aspect of family relationships and human nature can dramatically ameliorate family conflict after you are gone. A good estate planning attorney should be part attorney, but also a good personal advisor.  They shouldn’t be concerned only with the nuts and bolts of transferring your property.  They should also help you come up with an overall plan that makes it as easy as possible for your loved ones to continue to have healthy relationships with one another.

Admittedly, the contemplation of one’s demise can be fairly heavy.  So, if you are in need of a little levity and enjoy face-melting displays of musicianship (and light references to contract law), I would encourage you to watch the following video of Frank Zappa: Titties and Beer Live .  WARNING: the video contains exceedingly sophomoric and explicit lyrics, as well as a drummer wearing a Satan mask, so if you are Tipper Gore, or otherwise offended by that sort of thing, this video is not for you.