August 31, 2006

Janis Joplin's Will..My Questions 36 Years Later

A few weeks ago, while spinning through the channels of my cable TV line-up, I came upon a movie titled The Festival Express. The movie chronicles the experiences and good times (and I emphasize good times) had by a few rock and rollers traveling through Canada by train during the summer of 1970. The movie features the live performances (as well as fascinating, impromptu jam sessions on the train) given during that tour, including that of Janis Joplin. I found the performance by Joplin riveting. With her starkly honest, raw renditions, she stole the show. I was intrigued and began to wonder about her life and tragic death.

So the other night, while watching a baseball game on TV, I decided to search for Joplin’s will on the web. I have found that one can actually learn a lot about an individual from examining his/her will.


Her Will looks like an ordinary Will our own legal department would draft for a client requiring very straight forward planning. Janis leaves ½ of her estate to her parents Seth and Dorothy, ¼ to her sister Laurel and ¼ to her brother Michael.

I was actually a bit disappointed by how ordinary her Will appeared to be on first glance, considering the unconventional life she led and the stardom she had achieved. I was about to ‘click out’ of the document when I came upon something compelling.


A second and more careful reading of the third article of her document, made my eyes pop out! For analytical purposes I would like to divide the article into two parts.

In Article Three, (which precedes the bequests to her parent and siblings), she leaves her furniture, jewelry, pictures, and souvenirs for her Executer to distribute as follows:

To various of my friends and acquaintances, in relation to the closeness of my relationship with such friends and acquaintances…”

How could Janis expect her Executer to measure the closeness of each friend and possibly carry out this task? How could her Lawyer allow this to enter the document, knowing how valuable her personal effects could be? Remember that in 1970, when she signs her will, Janis is already a superstar

And now on to the second part:
“…. Provided that a preference with respect to the distribution of such items be given to any female roommate with whom I have resided for some time prior to the date of my death and with whom I continue to reside on such date.”

WHAT? This provision raises more questions that lead to even further questions.

First of all, how does one define “some time”? Is it a month? A year? Longer? And of course, what does she mean by “female roommate?”

Another on-line probe resulted in the following clues. Janis Joplin signed the Will in 1970. While that turbulent 60’s-early 70’s era is often associated with burgeoning sexual and artistic freedoms, one must also remember that the country was still basically conservative, with Richard Nixon presiding. Janis, who was known to have relationships with both men and woman, was perhaps referring to her longtime girl friend Peggy Caserta, who later wrote about their romantic relationship. However, it did not appear from the press clippings that I found, that they were roommates at the time of her death.

Perhaps, by using the word roommate, she was protecting her parents and little brother (I know he was young because she left him money in Trust) from embarrassment—Maybe, maybe not.

Today, when our legal department drafts Wills for couples in non-traditional relationships, they will use terms like “my partner Jane,’ or “my lover for life Michael’—but in 1970? ---Things were different.


I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the ambiguous provisions in Joplin’s Will and what they might reveal about her mindset at the time. I found myself back on line at 3 in the morning researching her again. I realized that she was only 27 years old when she died of a supposedly accidental heroin overdose. Further checking of facts revealed the following; Janis signed her Will on Oct 1, 1970---Janis died on October 4, 1970----3 days later.


The reports surrounding her death give a lot of support to the notion that her death was accidental. They say that Janis was compulsive about having her heroin checked by a chemist before using it. However, this one time she was unable to test the drug and it happened to be unusually pure and potent. One report called it another “garden variety accidental overdose” that followed an overdose by Jimmy Hendrix by only 2 weeks.


I think back to the depth of the torment her singing expressed during the Festival Express Concerts during the summer of 1970----------- I think back to the signing of the Will three days before her death ----------- I think about that seemingly innocuous provision. Was she referring to a specific live in partner at the time, or was she expressing some sort of a  longing for a permanent relationship--- 

Was this really a “garden variety overdose?” (Quite the callous term, isn’t it?) Or did the authorities just categorize it as such and dismiss this as another overdose by some drug crazed 60’s style rock and roller?  …I can’t help but wonder…                               
Janis Joplin (1943-1970)


For those of you with concerns about outsiders combing through your private estate details, there is the option of having a Revocable Living Trust prepared. Unlike a Will, which becomes public.

Until next time,

Austin A. Frye, MBA, JD, CFP®

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