A Not-So-Happy Accident: Bob Ross’s Estate Planning Failures Leave His Son With Next to Nothing—Part 1
As the host of the popular The Joy of Painting TV series on PBS, Bob Ross became a pop-culture icon, who was famous for his giant head of hair, soothing baritone voice, and folksy demeanor as he was for his iconic landscape paintings. Further, like so many other artists, Bob’s artwork and image would become even more popular following Bob’s death in 1995.
Bob’s philosophy in both life and painting was that there “were no mistakes in life… just happy little accidents.” Sadly, as detailed in the recent Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, Bob’s failure to coordinate his business agreements with his Will and Trust was anything but happy, leaving his only son unable to benefit from his father’s fame and fortune.
As we’ll discuss, Bob’s planning failures have led to an ugly court battle between his former business partners and his family. During this court battle, they fought for control of the lucrative intellectual property rights to the Bob Ross brand. And although Bob’s son Steve ultimately lost his fight to benefit from the business empire built on his father’s persona and painting skills, we’ll explain the steps you can take to ensure that your loved ones don’t suffer the same fate and are able to fully benefit from all of your business assets following your death.
Building Bob Ross
Upon meeting Bob at one of his early in-person painting classes, husband and wife duo Walter and Annette Kowalski convinced Bob to go into business with them. They then launched Bob Ross Inc. (BRI) in 1985. According to the Daily Beast, the corporation initially consisted of four equal partners: Bob Ross and his wife Jane Ross, along with Walter and Annette.
With the Kowalski’s financial backing, BRI’s initial business model had Bob teaching a series of in-person painting classes through out the U.S. east coast at which they sold painting supplies and art instruction manuals. However, after signing on with PBS for The Joy of Painting series and launching their own line of Bob Ross-brand painting and art supplies, business began to take off.
From 1986 through 1994, BRI registered several trademarks using Bob Ross’ name and likeness. The company also signed several licensing agreements with third parties. This was all done with Bob’s consent. All four individuals—Bob, Jane, Walter, and Annette—were technically equal partners in the corporation, but it was acknowledged that Bob was the one in charge, as well as the one with the talent and the face of the brand.
In fact, when The Joy of Painting became one of PBS’s top-ranked shows at the close of the 1980s, the frizzy-headed artist grew into a celebrity. For example, Bob made appearances on popular talk shows of the day. Bob was also a featured star at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. At the peak of his fame, Bob even had plans to launch his own musical that was based on his TV show.
The success of the show and Bob’s fame boosted sales of Bob Ross art supplies, which branched out to include books and videos in addition to the paints and brushes adorned with Bob’s name. BRI eventually started offering painting workshops around the U.S., with teachers who were trained in Bob’s method leading the instruction.
All of this translated into financial success for the company. Based on records that were made public during the lawsuits over Bob’s estate, BRI was bringing in roughly a half-million dollars each year for the four partners to share, according to the Daily Beast. However, the good times wouldn’t last.
Things Fall Apart
Things started to go downhill for the company in 1992 when Bob’s wife, Jane, passed away from cancer. Following her death, the structure of BRI required that Jane’s share of the company be divided equally among the surviving three partners. As a result, Bob owned just one-third of the company that bore his name and likeness. This restructuring upon Jane’s death was likely not understood by the Ross’s when they signed their partnership agreements.
Shortly after his wife’s death, Bob developed lymphoma. In 1994, while he was battling cancer, the Kowalskis offered Bob a deal. The Kowalskis reportedly faxed him an agreement that would give them all of Bob’s intellectual property rights as well as all of his artistic works. In return, the Kowalskis would pay Ross or his surviving heirs 10% of BRI’s profits for the next 10 years. According to the offer, after the 10 years was up, the Kowalskis would own all income from Bob Ross, Inc—forever.
Not surprisingly, Bob refused to sign the agreement. Bob was reportedly infuriated that the Kowalskis would even ask him to sign such a one-sided deal. In an attempt to protect his rights to his business and intellectual property assets, Bob made several changes to his Will and Trust. The most notable change was made to Bob’s trust just two months prior to his death.
In the amendment to Bob’s Trust, Bob added a clause that specified that all intellectual property rights to Bob’s “name, likeness, voice, and visual, written, or otherwise recorded work” would pass to his son, Steve, and Bob’s half-brother, Jimmie Cox. Specifically, Bob assigned 51% of the interest of his intellectual property to Jimmie and 49% to Steve.
Oddly, though Bob’s Will and Trust specifically left his intellectual property to Steve and Jimmie, Jimmie never shared this fact with Steve, who would only learn of the changes to his father’s Will and Trust some two decades later.
Grand Theft Bob
Bob Ross passed away on July 4, 1995, at age 52. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $1.3 million. Half of his estate value was his one-third share in BRI. Even though they were unable to gain full control over Bob’s share of BRI while Bob was alive, the Kowalski’s decided to sue Bob’s estate after his death. The Kowalski’s sought all of his intellectual property rights, all of Bob’s finished paintings and even all of Bob’s art tools and paints down to his easel and brushes in their lawsuit.
The Kowalski’s lawsuit was so expansive and their legal tactics were so brutal that one of Bob’s old friends took to calling their efforts “Grand Theft Bob.” In the end, the Kowalski’s legal strategy was designed to gain complete control of Bob’s afterlife, despite Bob’s clear wishes to the contrary.
Without the financial means to sustain a prolonged legal battle, the estate’s executor, Jimmie Cox, was forced to settled with the Kowalskis in 1997. The settlement agreement was accompanied by an assignment of all of Bob’s intellectual property rights, which specified that “To the extent, if any, any such rights or incidents of ownership are somehow vested in Estate, Estate hereby conveys, transfers and assigns all such rights and incidents of ownership and ownership itself to BRI.”
Additionally, both the estate and the Bob Ross Trust signed separate mutual releases with BRI which state that the parties and their heirs, assigns, successors in interest, etc., “do, now and forever, absolutely and irrevocably, hereby release each other in and from any and all claims, suits, liabilities, complaints, losses, damages, and charges of every kind and character arising prior to the date of execution hereof.”
Bob Ross Reboot
As with many other artists, Bob Ross’s fame reached its peak in the years following his death. Although The Joy of Painting’s last episode aired in 1995, as the years went by, more and more people would discover the Bob’s work and persona via the Internet. Additionally, when Annette and Walt Kowalski handed control of BRI to their daughter Joan in 2012, the Bob Ross brand would reach new heights.
Things really began to take off regarding Bob’s fame in 2015, when Joan was approached by the licensing company Janson Media, which wanted to add The Joy of Painting to a new online streaming platform called Twitch. With a total of 403 episodes to pull from, Twitch launched a Bob Ross marathon. This allowed the Bob Ross brand to soon reached millions of new fans.
Joan stated to the online journal Vocativ in 2015 regarding the Bob Ross reboot: “Twitch. TV woke up the world,” said Joan. “They made everybody remember their childhood again even though we’ve always been here… We are freakin’ out.”
Following the Twitch broadcast, Joan was approached by a brand-management firm known as Firefly. That’s when the money really started pouring in. Today, you can find everything from Bob Ross bobbleheads and Bob Ross chia pets to Bob Ross Christmas ornaments and action figures. Both Netflix and Twitch stream The Joy Of Painting series episoids. There’s also a Bob Ross sleep app available through the Calm meditation app platform.
These licensing opportunities translated to major money for BRI. According to the Daily Beast, in 2012, when Joan took over, BRI brought less than $200 in licensing revenue. However, by 2016, that figure had grown to $460,000, and by 2017, Bob Ross-branded products were bringing more than a million dollars in licensing fees each year.
Steve Sues BRI
Even though shortly before his death, Bob amended his Will and Trust to transfer all of his intellectual property rights to his son, Steve, and half-brother, Jimmie Cox, Steve claimed that he never knew his father made such a move. Actually, it would be more than 20 years after his father’s death before Steve claims he found out about the clause in his father’s trust.
Armed with this knowledge, Steve sued BRI. Steve alleged in his lawsuit that all of the licensing deals and products that used his father’s name and likeness were unauthorized. In his lawsuit, Steve demanded compensation for the years of what he believed to be unauthorized use of the intellectual property rights Steve claims to own based on his father’s Will and Trust.
Sadly for Steve, the court didn’t agree with him. In 2019, the court ruled that Bob Ross’s trust could not have assigned the intellectual property rights to Steve and Jimmie because the Trust did not own those rights. Specifically, the court specified in its ruling, “Plaintiff would not own the intellectual property at issue because the Trust never owned it. Similarly, because Bob Ross gave BRI his right to publicity during his lifetime, it could not have transferred to his son on his death.”
In other words, it didn’t matter that the Bob Ross Trust left Steve his father’s intellectual property rights because the Trust never possessed those rights. Instead, the court found that
Bob had transferred all of his intellectual property to BRI during his lifetime via oral contracts. Therefore, the amendment to Bob’s trust was irrelevant, since he had already given all of the rights to his intellectual property to BRI.
Although Steve thought he could win an appeal, he didn’t have the money to continue to fight, so he ended up settling with the Kowalski family. In exchange for a modest payment, Steve gave up any claim to his father’s intellectual property. However, in the settlement, Steve did obtain the right to move forward with a business using his own name.
Since then, Steve has launched his own business teaching painting workshops in the same studio where his father began his career. Steve was joined in his venture by his father’s old friend Dana Jester. They held their first workshop in September 2019, when several dozen artists gathered to learn from the two most talented masters of the Bob Ross painting technique still alive today.
In the end, even though Bob Ross clearly intended to leave his intellectual property rights to his son, because Bob failed to coordinate his business agreements with his Will and Trust, his son will never share in the fortune that has been made by the vast business empire built on his father’s name, likeness, and persona.
Learn From Bob’s Mistakes
Fortunately, you can easily prevent your loved ones from suffering the same fate as Steve by using proper Wills and Trusts planning vehicles. Next week in part two of this series, we’ll discuss how you can use Wills and Trusts planning to ensure that all of your business assets and intellectual property you own, are protected and passed on to your family following your death or incapacity.
Until then, if you have a business, intellectual property, or any other type of asset that you want to include in your Will and Trust, you should meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. With our support and guidance, you can ensure that your loved ones will always be provided for and stay out of court and out of conflict no matter what happens to you.
This article is a service of Levi L. Alexander, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents. We help to ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. This is why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™. During this session, you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session for free.