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Netflix Documentary on Painter Bob Ross Serves as a Cautionary Tale for Business Owners

“Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed” is a new Netflix documentary that focuses on the late artist’s life and the battle for the multimillion-dollar corporation that owns Ross’s name, likeness, and intellectual property. While also entertaining, the film serves as a cautionary tale for business owners on the importance of business succession planning.

Bob Ross was a gifted painter with a calm demeanor who hosted the PBS show, “The Joy of Painting” in the 1980s. The show was a success, so Ross created Bob Ross Inc. which owns the rights to his name, likeness, and intellectual property along with his wife Jane and two business partners, Walt and Anne Kowalski. Under the terms of the agreement, the business was split between the four partners equally, with rights of ownership shifting to the remaining partners if one should die or become incapacitated. Jane died in 1992, and Ross passed away in 1995, giving the Kowalskis ownership of the company.

In the 90-minute documentary, the artist’s son, Steve, 55, alleges that the Kowalskis robbed him of his father’s legacy. In Bob Ross’s last will, he left his estate and rights to his name, likeness, and intellectual property to Steve and his half-brother, Jimmi Cox. However, the Kowalskis sued Steve and Cox, stating they owned the rights per the business agreement and won the lawsuit.

The company, worth $10 million at Ross’s death, is estimated to be worth much more now. The Kowalskis retired in 2012, leaving ownership of Bob Ross Inc. to their daughter, Joan Kowalski.

Business Succession Planning

Advanced business succession planning provides business owners with a variety of legal options that will result in the greater likelihood of the business’s continued prosperity. The process also helps families plan for the transfer of businesses from one generation to the next, a tool that would have benefited the Ross family tremendously.

A family limited partnership (FLP) or a family limited liability company (FLLC) are two options that help protect a business’ assets. The creation of these entities, supported by well-drafted estate planning documents, such as wills and irrevocable trusts, often assists in the successful transfer of business owners’ interests to their heirs.

Help is available

The attorneys at O’Reilly Rancilio are available to answer your questions regarding business succession and estate planning. For more information, please call 586-726-1000 or visit our website.

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