A California appeals court got its chance on Wednesday to provide an answer. The dispute involved singer-actor Bing Crosby, first married to a woman named Wilma. From 1930 until 1952, the two were married and had four sons. Then Wilma died. Five years later, Crosby married actress Kathryn Grant. Together, they had three children and remained married for the next 20 years, until Crosby died in 1977. Crosby’s will left everything to his second wife.
HLC Properties was the trust set up to manage the estate.
In 1996, the trustees of Wilma’s estate sued HLC over “interest, dividends, royalties and other income derived from community property” of Bing and Wilma. The case was settled in 1999 for about $1.5 million.But that wasn’t the end of this, because a few years later, Wilma’s Trust came around to the idea that they should be benefiting from Crosby’s publicity rights. After all, he became famous during that first marriage. Weren’t those publicity rights community property?
It is a fascinating issue and one that is likely to come up in the future. In this particular situation, the judges couldn’t reach the question before figuring out whether the 1990s dispute and settlement precluded the claim from Wilma’s Trust.
Though on Wednesday, California appeals judge H. Walter Croskey writes in an opinion how the state’s posthumous right of publicity has been on the books for quite some time and that the 2008 law “only clarified” the older statute’s original intent.”Since we conclude that SB 771 only clarified existing law, the amendment did not create any new rights that fell outside of the 1999 settlement’s release of all claims to community property, the argument of Wilma’s Estate that Bing’s right of publicity did not exist in 1999 and thus could not have been the subject the settlement agreement must fail,” writes the appeals judge, reversing the trial judge. “The petition of Wilma’s Estate is clearly barred by res judicata.”