The Wrong Estate Executor Can Make Family Drama Worse, As Jerry Garcia’s Heirs Discovered

When Grateful Dead legend Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack in 1995 at age 53, he left his assets to his third wife, three daughters by two ex-wives, a fourth daughter by a former girlfriend, and a step-daughter, among other beneficiaries.

Predictably, there was trouble ahead and trouble behind.

Garcia didn’t help matters when he chose his third wife, Deborah Koons, whom he married in 1994, to administer his estate—arguably the worst person he could have picked.

By naming her one of the co-executors, Garcia expected Koons to help ensure the payment of money owed to ex-wife No. 2 while protecting the interests of Garcia’s four daughters and step-daughter, among other things. Koons also had to deal with Garcia’s share of future royalty income and intellectual property related to The Grateful Dead and his various side projects, including Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.

It was a lot to ask of Koons, whose first act was to immediately bar his two ex-wives from Garcia’s funeral.

No one challenged the terms of Garcia’s will, but several beneficiaries objected to decisions made by Koons and the attorney appointed as her co-executor. Years of legal squabbling followed. Among Koons’ bad decisions, she stopped the payments Garcia had been making to his second ex-wife, Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams as part of a 20-year, $5 million property agreement. A California state court judge ruled the agreement was binding and that Garcia’s estate owed Mountain Girl more than $4 million. She ultimately settled for $1.25 million after Koons threatened to appeal.

An executor is the individual or institution named in a will and appointed by a court to carry out the provisions of the will. Responsibilities include collecting and distributing the estate’s assets, paying its debts and taxes, and maintaining accurate books and records. Executors can be a spouse, child or other family member; an accountant, lawyer or other advisor; a trust company, or any combination of these.

In choosing an executor, consider the relationship between the executor and the beneficiaries. Do they get along? Will they work well together? Could the potential executor handle any family issues during the settlement of the estate? It’s also crucial to name an executor who has the right skills, from good communication and diplomacy to a degree of comfort working with attorneys, accountants and financial planners.

While naming a spouse an executor may be fine in many long-term marriages, in messy circumstances like Garcia’s it may be better to go outside the family.

A corporate executor is often the right choice for a complicated estate, which may include business holdings, assets that are difficult to value, children from multiple relationships and the desire to leave assets to heirs in unequal shares. While some heirs may be reluctant to accept an institution as executor because of the fees involved, a neutral third party can save money in the long run by making the administration of the estate more efficient and reducing the potential for family drama.

Garcia undoubtedly left a difficult situation behind when he died. Had he chosen an executor that was less biased against the other heirs and more knowledgeable about financial matters than his widow, much time, effort and aggravation might have been saved.