Trail of 'sub-prime' debts he leaves behind

When prosecutors at his child molestation trial in 2005 trawled through Michael Jackson's troubled finances, they found a star with what they said was "a billionaire's spending habit – but only a millionaire's budget". In such a situation, he was already on a trajectory towards tragedy.

In the intervening years, the financial shambles only worsened, and one of the world's best-selling music artists of all time seemed only half a step from bankruptcy. After a myriad of tortuous financial rescue deals, he leaves behind a complex mountain of debt that is likely to keep lawyers busy for years. Estimates of how much he owed range from a conservative $60m (£36m), cited by news agencies yesterday, to $500m (£305m) quoted by the Wall Street Journal in an investigation earlier this year. It is far from clear that Jackson has protected enough assets to pay for his children's upbringing.

Almost everything he owned was leveraged or sold off. Neverland, his ranch near Santa Barbara, had been threatened with foreclosure in February 2008. Earlier this year it was sold in an opaque $35m deal to a real-estate investment group called Colony Capital, whose founder Thomas Barrack planned to turn it into a tourist attraction in a venture with Jackson.

Through Mr Barrack's financial prism, Jackson looked like an undervalued asset. He brought in Philip Anschutz, the Colorado billionaire who owns the O2 in London, to finance the star's rehabilitation. It was thanks to these two new partners that Jackson was able to avert the foreclosure of Neverland, and avoid the auction of his possessions earlier this year – but only by agreeing to an onerous string of concerts. Reports suggest he was paying 16.5 per cent interest on some loans, meaning financiers thought he was very much a "sub-prime" borrower.

"The man has been flat broke for most of the past decade," Diane Dimond, a TV reporter who covered Jackson's trials, told The Independent recently. "Every penny of income is needed to service payments on loans."

Claims that he reneged on strings of promises to record again or to take to the stage form the core of numerous lawsuits against him. Among more than a dozen outstanding claims, the writer and director of his "Thriller" video, John Landis, is suing to stop a Broadway musical, saying some of the value of that work should go to him.

The other remaining asset is Jackson's tranche of 251 Beatles songs. He had bought those rights in 1985, at the height of his powers, and sold a half stake to Sony a decade later. His interest in its joint venture, Sony/ATV, will be one of the prizes for competing claims on his estate, even though Jackson tried to protect it by putting it into a trust. It will be a messy fight.

Of course, the biggest and most tragic victims of Jackson's sudden death are surely his three children: Prince Michael, Paris, and "Blanket". Even given inevitable earnings from future tribute albums, the King of Pop's heirs are likely to inherit a troubled estate whose financial commitments far exceed its assets. After their bizarre and sometimes troubled childhood, their only potential source of future stability is now gone forever.