Stan Lee in 2013. Photo by Flickr user Thibault.
High in the Hollywood hills, a 95-year-old man sits isolated in his home, parted by death from his lifelong love and surrounded by people he has reason to believe are determined to strip him of his life’s work – and of his dignity.
Is there a hero anywhere who can rescue Stan Lee?
If there is, I’m willing to bet the hero will show up in costume, wearing judicial robes. Because only a real-life justice system, rather than an imaginary set of do-gooders with supernatural powers, can truly protect someone like the man who helped bring characters such as Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk to life in the comic books and on the screen.
Lee is a legend, and a major attraction, at comic conventions. More casual fans might recognize him as the nonchalant driver of Peter Parker’s school bus – “What’s the matter, you’ve never seen a spaceship before?” – in the current release “Avengers: Infinity War,” or from his many other cameos in Marvel pictures since 2000 (with an earlier made-for-TV Hulk movie cameo in 1989). The trade press reports that due to his advanced age, Lee has shot additional cameos in advance for a slew of other productions to be released in coming years. As “Infinity War” continues to conquer the global box office, capping off a series of 10 years of interconnected and mostly very successful films, the Marvel Comics franchises that Lee helped create have never been stronger.
But that is little comfort to Lee, who filed a $1 billion lawsuit in California earlier this month merely to reclaim ownership of his own name. Lee claims he was fraudulently induced last year to sign over all rights in perpetuity to his name, his social media accounts and virtually all other intellectual property remaining under his control to the Hong Kong company that previously took control of Pow! Entertainment, the company Lee and his then-partner co-founded decades ago.
Like many creative people, Lee was never particularly good at business. But he made a good living, especially after Disney bought the rights to the Marvel franchise more than a decade ago. Despite the parade of questionable characters that Lee brought into his business affairs, his wife of nearly 70 years, Joan B. Lee, maintained reasonable order in their household until her death last year as a result of a stroke. The sale of Pow! took place very soon after her death; Lee now maintains in court papers that people in his inner circle took advantage of his grief, as well as his very limited vision due to macular degeneration, to get him to sign on to terms he never would have knowingly accepted.
The Hollywood Reporter reported in detail about the infighting and conflicts of interest among the people close to Lee, and about his tense and nearly estranged relationship with his only child, Joan C. (widely known as J.C.) Lee. Lee maintains that his daughter, who he says has never supported herself, subjects him to verbal and sometimes physical abuse in a relentless quest to extract money from him. She has maneuvered with his business contacts to further her own interests, he says; sure enough, a copy of the challenged license agreement included with his court papers indicates that in return for the father relinquishing the rights to his name and likeness, J.C. was to receive a 1 percent royalty on future merchandising.
All of the alleged malefactors in Lee’s litigation deny wrongdoing.
Lee’s situation has attracted attention because of his fame and relative fortune, but it is not unusual. In a perfect world, trustworthy and loyal family members would work in concert with equally trustworthy and loyal professionals to look after the physical and financial well-being of an elderly person in decline. Sometimes things work out that way. Too often, they don’t.
Some years back, my wife’s aging and childless aunt consulted an “elder care” lawyer for help in managing her affairs. The lawyer sent her home with a document that would have given the lawyer sole and all-but-irrevocable power over all the aunt’s assets, as well as decision-making power over her living and health care arrangements. The lawyer would have been well compensated for her efforts, whatever they might have been, and would have been very difficult to dislodge.
Fortunately, the aunt consulted my wife’s parents, who told her not to sign and to talk to me instead. I asked why she would want to give such power and responsibility to a stranger when she had my wife available to look after her personal needs and me to assist with managing her finances. She said she did not want to be a burden to us.
I assured her it would not be a burden. After she declined to sign the document, we never heard from the attorney again. About 18 months after this conversation, my wife’s aunt’s condition took a dramatic turn for the worse, and we looked after her for the remaining seven years of her life. She died at age 96, comfortably at home, with round-the-clock aides looking after her. After her death, my wife and I also took care that her testamentary wishes were carried out.
This was an ideal situation. We did not need or want the aunt’s money for ourselves, and my wife and I had the personal and financial knowledge to manage her affairs effectively. A lot of people, like Stan Lee, are not so fortunate. How can they protect themselves?
The best defense is thoughtful, advance planning. Of course there are many adult children who would sacrifice their own financial security and quality of life if necessary to look after an ailing parent; if you have one or more such children, you are lucky. Even in these cases, if the children (assuming multiple children) cannot work effectively together, or if they lack good financial skills or advice, bad things are still apt to happen.
Professional and business advisers can be a big help, too. But you have to think carefully about conflicts of interest. Any professional needs and deserves to get paid, and the old adage about the value of free advice has a lot of underlying truth. Ask yourself this question, however: If you were no longer in the picture, would this person be able to get along well financially without you? Someone who relies on your wealth for their own personal security, by definition, has an inherent and difficult-to-manage conflict of interest. Good elder care can be very expensive, and heirs and colleagues can become too focused on protecting their own positions to give proper deference to the needs of the elder relative or business partner.
Institutional or professional fiduciaries are not always the solution – in fact, as in the case of my wife’s aunt, they can be a big problem – but sometimes they are the best possible answer. If I had been advising Stan Lee about how to protect his interests, along with those of his daughter, I might have suggested using a charitable remainder trust as one possible tool, to bring relatively impartial and competent managers into the picture.
Suppose, for example, that Lee’s goal was to provide income for himself and his daughter for their lives, and then to support a charity he considered worthy. For argument’s sake, let’s invent a charity: the Consortium for the Legacy of Aging Super Heroes, or CLASH.
Lee could have transferred some or all of his assets, including the rights to his image and likeness, to an independent trustee, perhaps a professional fiduciary who works with CLASH. The trust could have paid annual distributions to Lee during his lifetime (which he would be free to share with J.C. if he chose), then to J.C. for her remaining years. After that, the remaining assets in the trust would be for the benefit of CLASH. A good trustee would hire and monitor professionals to get good value for the trust assets. The trustee would also have fiduciary duties to balance the interests of Stan, J.C. and CLASH, without undue benefit to any one party.
I would never approach a stranger like Stan Lee to offer my services, however. I think any wealthy person, but especially celebrities, should be very wary of a so-called adviser who seeks them out unsolicited. The most trustworthy people will tend to be the ones who have demonstrated their worth over a long period of service, preferably beginning before the subject was either famous or wealthy. Or they will have established a solid reputation that can be vetted with other clients and collaborators, or with independent third parties. And they will be mostly concerned with your well-being whether you hire them or not. They may want to do business with you, but they will be perfectly fine without it.
The last resort, and maybe the only hope for someone in Lee’s position, is a court-appointed conservator. Without either a reliable child or trusted business adviser to look after his interests, Lee’s best chance might be to go before a judge and seek the appointment of professional representatives who will operate under the court’s supervision to represent Lee’s interests. It will not always be the best representation, and it certainly won’t be the cheapest, but it almost surely is better than Lee trying to manage his affairs on his own.
Surrendering oneself to a rescuer is not as easy to do in real life as it seems in the comics, however. We all want to view ourselves as capable adults. It is rare for anyone, let alone someone with Lee’s fame and track record, to voluntarily go to court to seek help. More often it is a relative or friend, or possibly legal and social service agencies, who force the issue.
For now, Lee’s story is a cliffhanger. Will someone be able to save him and give him some peace before it is too late? Stay tuned.