“Pretty Little Trees Notwithstanding” – Tragic Lessons Learned from Artist Bob Ross’s Misinformed Business & Estate Planning

The Importance of Consulting an Attorney: A Portrait by Bob Ross

The Netflix documentary “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed” is a fascinating look into the life and legacy of Bob Ross, a famous art teacher who continues to grow his cult following decades after his death.

As the documentary uncovers, the issues that arose in his later years and the years following his death spotlight the importance of proper attorney representation.

When he died, Bob Ross’s estate was worth millions in royalties. All of these royalties ultimately passed to former business partners rather than his family.

His family and friends have dealt with lawsuit after lawsuit because Bob Ross failed to discuss his decisions with an attorney before taking action.

While not everyone has an estate like Bob Ross, the issues his family faced can happen to anyone.

The issues began when Bob Ross and his wife went into business with a couple named the Kowalskis. They agreed that if one of them passed away, the decedent’s interest would be split equally among the surviving partners.

When Bob’s wife passed away first, it gave the Kowalskis a majority stake in the company. This ultimately allowed the Kowalskis to run the business as they saw fit.

An experienced business attorney would have pointed this possibility out to Bob and his wife. Consulted with the attorney before signing the agreement would have likely saved them and their family millions of dollars.

An attorney would have proposed other options in the event one of the partners passed away. For example, the deceased partner’s interest in the company could be put in the hands of a trusted third party or family member.

Bob Ross’s next mistake was assigning the rights to his name, image, and likeness to the company.

As seen with the recent NCAA rulings, name, image, and likeness (“NIL”) are vitally important for athletes, performers, and other celebrities because they are the foundation of their business. These individuals can use their NIL to build their brand and sell themselves as a commodity.

With the Bob Ross name, the company could amass a fortune by using and licensing the Bob Ross brand on anything they could – from paintbrushes and other supplies to Chia Pets. Meanwhile, Bob Ross and his children didn’t receive a dime.

Bob later attempted to fix his mistake by placing his NIL rights in a trust. A trust is a common estate planning tool for a myriad of reasons. Bob created his trust to avoid probate and ensure his assets passed according to his wishes. Unfortunately, he did so without the help of an experienced attorney.

The problem with putting his NIL rights in a trust was that he had already transferred them to the Kowalskis.

When a person transfers the same asset to multiple people, a dispute over who actually owns the asset will likely arise. Expectedly, when the Kowalskis found out about Bob’s trust and what it contained, they began an onslaught of lawsuits. The lawsuits cost his family a fortune, and ultimately, the Kowalskis won.

Our experienced business and estate planning attorneys are here to help!

Had Bob consulted with an experienced attorney, he could have avoided all of these issues for himself and his family.

Our business and estate planning attorneys can walk you through how to paint a beautiful portrait of your business contracts and estate planning to ensure the outcome ends up like a Bob Ross painting and NOT his legal legacy.

 

About the author

Kevin Fitzgerald focuses his practice primarily on transactional cases.



EDUCATION
JURIS DOCTOR
Emory University School of Law

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