A news article in Forbes highlights the continued problems arising out of the estate of one of the most beloved figures of the 20th century. When he was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t leave a Last Will and Testament. Since then, his estate has gone through numerous different legal challenges as his heirs have disagreed over the status and ownership of their father’s property.
These challenges continue as this year a new set of documents related to Dr. King have brought about a new lawsuit. The documents, owned by Howard Nelson Ballou, once belonged to Dr. King. They include handwritten letters, newsletters and other documents he wrote, as well as a handwritten letter to Dr. King from Rosa Parks. These documents came to be in Mr. Ballou’s possession because his mother, Maude Willimas Ballou, was Dr. King’s personal secretary in the 1950’s. Mrs. Ballou and her late husband had been friends with Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Earlier this year, the Estate Of Martin Luther King Jr., Inc. – the corporation formed to handle his estate – filed a lawsuit in Mississippi to recover the documents.
The question of who is entitled to own the documents in question may come down a determination about what Dr. King’s intent was at the time he gave them to Ms. Ballou. Did he want her to keep them for storage or record-keeping purposes, or did he want her to have them as a gift? There appears to be no easy way to answer the question. Ms. Ballou is 86-years-old and claims that the documents were gifts, while little other evidence appears available to shed light on Dr. King’s intentions.