What you can learn from Dr. King’s family squabble

Martin Luther King is rolling in his grave. Yes, I said it. So sue me.

Well, you might actually do that if you were one of Martin Luther King’s children. In fact, yesterday Martin Luther King III and Rev. Bernice King – who were suing their brother Dexter for mismanaging the funds in their parents’ estates – avoided a jury trial and settled their longstanding feud. The three children had been the only shareholders in King Inc, the corporation created to control their father’s valuable legacy. Dexter is still the president and CEO of the estate, and had been, until late last night, its administrator.

Martin and Bernice had accused Dexter of wrongfully taking money from the family, alleging that he took “substantial funds” out of their mother’s estate and “wrongfully appropriated” money from their father’s. I am not sure what the difference between “wrongfully appropriating” money and good old fashioned stealing is, assuming that there is one, but perhaps I am not wealthy enough to know the distinction. Of course Dexter denied the accusations.

It has been reported that between 2004 and 2009 he did not call the family together for a shareholder meeting. It just so happens that such a meeting would have been a necessary step toward removing Dexter as the administrator of his father’s estate. The suit also claimed that Dexter refused to release documents showing how the estate was being run.

Dexter King counter-sued his sister Bernice, the administrator of their mother Coretta Scott King’s estate, for private papers owned by their mother which he needed for a $1.4 million dollar book deal that he signed. Some of Dr. King’s key possessions, including his Nobel Prize and the letters written by his wife, were turned over to the court until a decision was made.

Even though the case has now been settled, and a third party custodian will be brought in to manage the estate, there are lessons we can learn from this as parents when leaving wealth to our children. It would anger and disappoint me to no end if my children were to ruin their love for one another by fighting over money that none of them had actually earned.

1)Why didn’t Dr. King or Coretta originally include an outside party in the estate or set grounds for dispute resolution? An objective and trusted outsider might have been a good person to ensure that the children’s personal greed did not overwhelm the need for family preservation.

2)How did Dexter get so much control in the first place? If Dexter was as untrustworthy as his siblings claim, it is surprising that they gave him so much power. In that regard, family connections might have served to soften the desire to engage in logical business decision-making.

3)When dealing with family, be sure to always create clear contracts to protect you against all possibilities. If you love your relatives, you will write rock solid contracts before engaging in any type of business with them. That way, if there is a dispute, it doesn’t end up in the courtroom and splattered all over the newspapers. Most important, money won’t end up destroying your family.

In the midst of all the legal drama, the King family has endured personal tragedy as well. Their sister Yolanda died in 2007 and their mother, Coretta, died in 2006. I remember speaking to Rev. Jesse Jackson on the radio the day Yolanda died. I could feel the pain in Rev. Jackson’s heart, as he has known the King children since they were young. There was a time when the idea of fighting in court over multi-million dollar estates was a distant fantasy. I am sure that Dr. King would give up his entire legacy if it meant that his children would relearn the value of loving one another.

The kids can only ask themselves: how would daddy handle this dispute? Well, I can’t imagine that he’d be filing lawsuits against his relatives. There are some things more important than money. But then again, most of us aren’t having our family love tested by multi-million dollar contracts.

The King family reminds us that as much as we may have put them on a pedestal, the truth is that they are only human.