Is Fame an Asset? How Infamous Celebrity Casey Anthony's Bankruptcy Case Changed the Law

What is fame worth?

If you don't know the name Casey Anthony, you must have been on a total media blackout for the last five years. Anthony was accused of murdering her two year old daughter Caylee Anthony back in 2008. She lied to detectives during the missing child investigation and was subsequently charged with first-degree murder. In 2011, her legal team was successful in defending her against the charges, likely because prosecutors filed too steep of a charge in seeking a premeditated murder conviction.

The upshot of the trial was that even though Anthony was found not guilty of the charges, she was left with a mountain of legal bills. She filed bankruptcy and found another degree of legal infamy when her case posed little considered questions about the value of being a public figure. Today we take a look at why the bankruptcy court treated her differently than your average citizen, how this changed bankruptcy law and what it could mean for others with celebrity attached to their name.
Casey Anthony's Debts
When she filed for bankruptcy in January 2013, Anthony owed her defense attorney $500,000, another $145,660 to Orange County's Sheriff's Office for investigative expenses, $68,540 to the IRS for back taxes, interest and penalties, and $61,505 to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for court fees. She also faced a number of civil lawsuits related to the death of her daughter, including a defamation suit by Caylee's nanny because Anthony implicated her in the child's kidnapping and death. She filed Chapter 7 to escape from all of these debts and future debts from potential lawsuit verdicts. She listed her debts at close to $800,000 and assets of just $1,000 and no income.
Why This Case Was Groundbreaking
The court considered in Anthony's case whether her “right of publicity” was an asset that could be used to offset some of her debts. In essence, her infamy was the only asset Anthony possessed and one she might be able to leverage into big bucks if she wrote a tell-all book or sold the rights to her story to make a movie or for other purposes. A similar case in California against fellow acquitted murdered OJ Simpson found that his fame – which was arguably much greater than Anthony's – was not an asset that could be used to pay back his creditors. Most courts shy away from considering this, but this was not so in the Anthony case.
What the Court Ruled About Fame
The problem with assigning a bankruptcy filer's fame (or infamy) to the bankruptcy Trustee is how they would enforce the publicity rights. If the filer was ordered by the court to write their memoirs or make public appearances, this would violate doctrines against specific performance. The Trustee in Anthony's case had proposed selling her life story to offset her debts, but Anthony said this would give the purchaser of those rights control over her for the rest of her life. This could have turned into a protracted debate, but Anthony's attorneys proposed she pay $25,000 in lieu of having to sell her rights. The Trustee accepted this compromise as no precedent existed.
In other celebrity cases we've written about, fame as an asset has not been considered, but with the outcome of the Anthony case, this may change. We have to wonder if the court pushed for this because they had strong feelings about Anthony's involvement in her daughter's death, if they were being pressured by the state of Florida over the amounts she owed to the state or if this was an aggressive Trustee pushing to change state law. It will be interesting to see if this case has any ripple effect on future bankruptcy filings by celebrities.
If you're deep in debt, you don't need celebrity to get an immediate appointment with the experts at the law offices of John T Orcutt. We're here to help you get a financial fresh start no matter your circumstances. Contact us today for a free consultation at one of our convenient North Carolina locations.
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