When You Need Experienced Guidance

Happy little trees, big problems: Artist’s estate a lesson in succession planning

On Behalf of | Nov 12, 2021 | Business

Bob Ross, a talented artist well-known for his show “The Joy of Painting” which mostly aired on PBS from 1983 through 1994, inspired confidence in aspiring painters who watched the show. Those who have seen the show know he often began with a list of the paints used, providing the opportunity to get the same colors, set up an easel and join in. Throughout the show he gave tips, encouraged the viewer to take artistic liberties with their creations and shared some of his favorite painting tools to achieve his masterpieces.

In addition to his show, the painter also started Bob Ross Inc. (BRI). Here he could manage the sale of his own line of paints, brushes, and other materials as well as the paintings themselves. Mr. Ross started this corporation with three other business partners: his second wife as well as Annette and Walt Kowalski.

Unfortunately for Mr. Ross’ family, the business agreement between the partners stated that if any partner were to die, the business interest was distributed amongst the partners — not to family. This included the use of Mr. Ross’ name, image, and likeness. As a result, Mr. Ross’ son, a talented painter in his own right, is essentially barred from using his father’s fame to help build his own career.

Mr. Ross’ estate has gone through many legal battles. Although we will not get into the details of each, there are general lessons that apply to any family business. First, the importance of your own, independent legal counsel. Contracts are complex. They often include lots of provisions filled with legalese. Before you sign anything, have your own legal counsel review the contract and discuss how it impacts you and your family.

Next, and this is a little more nuanced but still important, do not underestimate the importance of your name, image, and likeness (NIL). One of the biggest problems for Mr. Ross’ family is the inability to use his NIL. It is generally best to retain control of your NIL for future licensing options.

Finally, it is important to regularly review your business succession and estate plan. These plans are generally fluid and can be adjusted to meet your needs as they change. It is a good idea to review the plan whenever there is a major life event, such as an addition of a business partner or a merger.