Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Wills of the People

When Grammy and Academy Award-winning musician Prince (née Prince Rogers Nelson) passed away last week at age 57, his fans around the world were shocked at the sudden loss. This week, it was alleged in court filings that the famed entertainer died without preparing a will – this time, sending a shock through the legal community. Prince's estate is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions, including his lucrative songwriting catalog (which Prince controlled after decades of legal wrangling with record labels). Prince was unmarried and had no living parents or children (his only son, with ex-wife Mayte Garcia, died shortly after his 1996 birth). Tyka Nelson, Prince's sister, has petitioned a Minnesota court for control of the entertainer's estate. (Prince also has five half-siblings, which the ABA Journal notes are treated as full siblings under Minnesota probate law.)

While it's surprising that Prince would die intestate after a career marked by legal battles over control of his intellectual property, he is hardly alone in neglecting to create a will. An oft-quoted statistic maintains that more than half of Americans – 55% – die without a will or estate plan in place. Even other celebrities occasionally ignore estate planning until it's too late – the do-it-yourself website LegalZoom published a list of 10 Famous People Who Died Without a Will, including musicians Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley as well as artist Pablo Picasso.

Want to see a particular celebrity's will (assuming they made one)? You might need to do some legwork. The Living Trust Network contains more than 40 reproductions of Wills of the Rich and Famous, including documents from pop stars (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston), actors (Katharine Hepburn, Heath Ledger), and even presidents (John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon). A Century of Celebrity Wills, by probate attorney Herbert E. Nass, describes and quotes the estate plans of some notable historical figures. But many celebrity wills can be found only in the records of the court where they were filed – and not necessarily available online. (David Bowie, who died earlier this year, is one such example – details of his will were described in the New York Times, but records of the Manhattan Surrogate's Court are not available online.)

To learn more about the basics of estate planning, take a look at the American Bar Association's Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law, which offers a helpful Frequently Asked Questions section on estate planning. Unsurprisingly, the ABA cautions against using "do-it-yourself" will websites or forms, but does include a helpful discussion of the situations which are more likely to require professional assistance. Consumer Reports also found in 2012 that self-service will-making websites can result in unintended legal consequences for all but the simplest estate plans.

For more information on estate planning resources, search the Duke Libraries catalog for "Estate planning – United States" or Ask a Librarian.

Friday, April 22, 2016

PACER Fees Face Legal Fire

On Thursday, three nonprofit groups filed a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The complaint, which is available free from the Alliance for Justice website and the Internet Archive, alleges that the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts charges excessive fees to access federal court filings on its PACER service (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). The Wall Street Journal Law Blog and ABA Journal have helpful write-ups of the case background.

As legal researchers know, is the official source for federal court filings, and is currently used in all federal jurisdictions except the U.S. Supreme Court (which announced in its 2014 Year-End Report of the Chief Justice that it is developing its own electronic alternative for filings). PACER requires individuals to register an account, along with a credit card for payment of any fees incurred above $15 in a quarterly billing period. Fees in PACER (for both searching and viewing individual case documents, currently $0.10 per page with individual document caps of $3.00) are intended to keep the service self-funded. However, the complaint notes that PACER fees collected by the Administrative Office (estimated as $145 million in 2014) far exceed the actual costs of maintaining the service, and that the additional revenue has funded non-PACER initiatives, contrary to Congress's stated intent. The complaint includes an informative history of PACER's fee schedule, and past lawsuits concerning PACER fees.

The Goodson Law Library's research guide to Court Records & Briefs lists a few options for legal researchers to track the progress of a particular case docket, including National Veterans Legal Services Program et al v. United States. The free docket search at Justia Dockets includes an information page for this lawsuit with direct links to the appropriate PACER site, but only case documents which are tagged as free "opinions" within PACER will be available to download from the case info page. However, the Internet Archive is providing a free mirror of the case docket with access to documents.

Current members of the Law School community may also view the case docket and download documents through Bloomberg Law's Litigation & Dockets tab. (See our research guide to PACER Access via Bloomberg Law for more about Bloomberg's free educational access to PACER materials for Law School accounts.)

For help accessing these or other federal court filings, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

All About Alumni Authors

With Reunion Weekend fast approaching, the Goodson Law Library is proud to highlight Law School Alumni Authors. Level 3 of the library contains a special Alumni Authors collection (view map); works in this collection will have a Location note in the Duke University Libraries catalog. If you have a tip about an existing or upcoming alumni publication which is not yet featured in our collection, let the library know in our online Suggestion Box.

The Goodson Law Library is also proud to sponsor an annual Alumni Author event, in observance of National Library Week. On Thursday, April 14, Jacinda Townsend (Class of '95) will discuss her acclaimed novel, Saint Monkey. This year's event is co-sponsored by the Black Law Students Association and the Women Law Students Association.

Poster for Jacinda Townsend Alumni Author event

Previous Alumni Author events can be found in the Duke Law video archive:

For help with locating our alumni author publications, be sure to Ask a Librarian.