LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Michael Jackson's three children were given a new guardian on Wednesday in an escalating power struggle within the famous musical family involving the singer's multimillion-dollar estate and the well-being of his elderly mother.
Los Angeles Superior Court judge Mitchell Beckloff gave temporary guardianship of the children to their cousin Tito Jackson Jr., 34, at his request, after a chaotic week of conflicting reports over the health and whereabouts of family matriarch Katherine Jackson
Katherine Jackson, 82, who was appointed guardian of Prince Michael, 15, Paris, 14, and Blanket Jackson, 10, in her son's will, was reported missing by granddaughter Paris last week.
Paris said in a series of angry Twitter posts that she hadn't been able to speak to her grandmother for nine days, but Katherine was later said by family members to be resting under doctor's order at the Arizona home of one of her daughters.
Attorneys for both Tito Jackson Jr. and Katherine Jackson raised questions at Wednesday's court hearing over whether Katherine's absence from her Los Angeles home was voluntary.
Tito Jackson Jr., the son of Michael's older brother Tito, told Beckloff that he spoke on Tuesday to Katherine but that she was talking strangely and seemed to be speaking in code.
"I never heard my grandmother talk like that," he said. "I'd ask simple questions and she wasn't sharp."
Another brother, Randy Jackson, told ABC News in a phone interview earlier on Wednesday that Katherine Jackson was on her way back to Los Angeles after being ordered by doctors to "isolate herself from the world and rest."
The family dispute broke into the open earlier this week in an angry confrontation, seen on security video, between Paris and her aunt, singer Janet Jackson, at a large compound in Los Angeles owned by the family made famous by the Jackson Five brothers in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Janet Jackson, who enjoyed a hitmaking solo career, and four of her siblings are embroiled in a dispute over the validity of their brother Michael's will, which handed guardianship to his mother and placed his estate in the hands of two executors.
The will stipulated that money earned by the estate would benefit the "Thriller" singer's mother and his kids, but the siblings claim Jackson's signature was forged and that he was not in California on the date it was signed.
The executors of the estate - entertainment lawyer John Branca and music executive John McClain - insist the will is valid and said earlier this week they were concerned about protecting the kids from "undue influences, bullying and greed."
Since Jackson's death at age 50 in June 2009, the executors have approved numerous projects including a posthumous concert rehearsal film "This Is It", a Cirque du Soleil show, and releases of new and old Jackson music and videos. The estate also controls the rights to much of his music.
Music publication Billboard estimated in 2010 that the "Thriller" singer's estate generated about $1 billion in revenue in just the first year following his death from an overdose of the surgical anesthetic propofol.
According to financial documents filed recently with a Los Angeles probate judge, the estate has earned $475 million in gross profits since Jackson's death, and much of the singer's estimated $500 million debt has been resolved.
Katherine Jackson's attorney, Perry Sanders, said after Wednesday's court hearing that he will move quickly once his client returns to California to have her guardianship restored.
But Sanders also admitted to journalists that he had been unable to see Katherine after flying out to a spa in Arizona at the invitation of some of the Jackson siblings.
"They said she was there because of her high blood pressure and to get some R&R," he said. "I would have liked to have seen her."
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte, Dale Hudson and Marguerita Choy)