Battle Over Estate and Legacy of Marvel Comics Legend Unfolds

In an ongoing dispute over the multimillion dollar estate of comic book legend Stan Lee, a man who claims he is Lee’s manager and caretaker was arrested in Los Angeles this past June and is being investigated over alleged elder abuse. In the interim, Lee (who is 95) has been placed under the temporary guardianship of a lawyer, who has obtained a restraining order against the manager.

Stan Lee’s Legacy

While working for Marvel in New York in the 1960’s, Stan Lee created many of the comic book characters that millions of comic book fans read over the years, and which are currently dominating the box office in remakes netting hundreds of millions of dollars (Ironman, Spiderman, X-Men, Black Panther, The Avengers, Doctor Strange, etc.)

Lee, who became the public face of Marvel, is a hero for many comic book fans, and has made a cameo appearance in almost every film that has been adapted from a Marvel comic. Despite his age and his recent health issues, Lee has been a regular at comic book conventions worldwide, where thousands of people pay for his autograph.

Lee’s estate is estimated to be worth between $50 million and $70 million (he reportedly receives $1 million annually from Marvel related income).

Family Drama

According to friends and colleagues, Lee has become surrounded by individuals with unclear motives and intentions since the death of his wife, Joan, last year. Lee and Joan had been married for seven decades. “Joanie” (as she was known) was key to Lee’s professional success and had often urged him to take risks (notably, for instance, to create The Fantastic Four: unheard of at the time as they were superheroes with flaws).  Joanie was also in charge of the couple’s household affairs, and was instrumental in keeping the peace between Lee and his daughter, J.C. Lee, with whom he had a challenging relationship.

Lee is currently at the centre of a dispute between Keya Morgan (the man in custody) and J.C. who, along with her lawyer, has long battled Morgan over access to her father and his assets.

Earlier this year, a document obtained by The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Lee and his late wife had arranged for a trust for J.C. because she allegedly had trouble supporting herself and often overspent (in the range of $20,000-$40,000 charged to credit cards monthly). The document also described an acrimonious relationship between J.C. and Lee. While J.C. would periodically demand changes to her trust, including transfers of properties into her name, Lee would resist such changes.

The document went on to allege that three men with “bad intentions” (including Morgan and J.C.’s lawyer) had improperly influenced J.C. (who is described as a woman with “very few adult friends”) and “insinuated themselves into relationships with J.C. for an ulterior motive and purpose”.

Several days after the document was notarized, Lee appeared to change his mind. Thereafter, Morgan and J.C. began asserting their power over Lee. For instance, Mike Kelly (who was Lee’s assistant for more than 25 years and who used to visit Lee at his home for daily meetings) was limited to weekly pre-arranged and supervised visits. A new accountant (Morgan’s friend) was hired. The housekeeper and gardener, who had both worked for Lee for many years, were fired. Lee’s phone number was changed, and his emails began to be monitored and responded to by Morgan who claimed that Lee had macular degeneration and could not see small font.

Morgan has also accompanied Lee to movie premieres and had acted as his representative by approving interviews and other appearances. He was arrested on June 11, 2018 on suspicion of filing a false police report. While the circumstances surrounding the arrest remain unclear, it seems to have been related to a disagreement with security personnel at Lee’s home.

Legal Drama

Also caught in the ongoing turmoil has been POW! Entertainment (the L.A. based media company that Lee co-founded in 2001). Earlier this year, Lee sued POW! for $1 billion, claiming that his business partners had sold the company under fraudulent circumstances. When asked for details about the lawsuit, Lee’s lawyer referred all questions to Morgan.

A spokesperson for the company that now controls POW! told reporters that the suit was “without merit” and questioned the motivation behind the complaint, noting that the lawsuit was “so preposterous that the company had to wonder whether Mr. Lee is personally behind this lawsuit.”

This past Monday, Lee dismissed the suit, noting, in a video on his Twitter account that:

The whole thing has been confusing to everyone, including myself and the fans, but I am now happy to be surrounded by those who want the best for me…I am thrilled to put the lawsuit behind me, get back to business with my friends and colleagues at POW! and launch the next wave of amazing characters and stories!

Since then, POW! announced that it is once again running Lee’s social media accounts, noting that, going forward, the company will be very specific with respect to when they write in Lee’s voice.

Lee’s video further notes that he views his fans as friends and hopes they feel the same, and that he plans to stay in better touch before signing off with his trademark word: “Excelsior.”

Guardian Ad Litem

Tom Lallas, Lee’s lawyer, has been appointed his “guardian ad litem”. Such guardians, who are usually lawyers, are appointed to be legally responsible for protecting the best interests and well-being of their ward only for the duration of a legal action. They are generally appointed for minors or individuals who have been deemed to lack capacity (i.e. individuals who require help protecting their rights).

In a statement, Lallas said that he will work to “protect the financial, emotional, physical and mental health and well-bring of Mr. Lee”, to preserve his estate, and to protect Lee from “undue influence” by third parties.

We will continue to follow developments in this story as they unfold. In the interim, if you have questions about estate litigation, including trustee and executor disputes or will challenges, contact Eli Karp at Financial Litigation.  We are a boutique litigation firm in Toronto that advises individuals, trustees, and other stakeholders regarding large, high value and other complex estate disputes. We provide insightful advice about the financial implications of legal disputes that enables our clients to minimize cost to the estate and ensure the rights and interests of loved ones are protected. Schedule your consultation online, or by calling us at 416-769-4107 x 1.