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BBC Report on Estates of the Rich and Famous: When a Celebrity Dies, Who Gets What Can Get Messy

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It appears to be happening yet again: a celebrity has died, and the contest over the estate has already turned messy. The death last month of Elvis Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie at age 54, tragic though it was, quickly triggered courtroom drama as her mother Priscilla, ex-wife of the King of Rock and Roll, has contested aspects of her daughter’s estate. The rest of us are left to gape once again as the untidy lives of celebrities are laid bare.

(As yet another example, consider this AgingOptions Blog article from last August about the sad case of celebrity artist Bob Ross.)

This unseemly legal case caught the attention of the venerable BBC, who reported on the squabble in this recent article from the BBC website.   In the report, news reporter Robin Levinson-King uses the battle surrounding Lisa Marie’s estate as a springboard to examine other recent cases in which the death of someone rich and famous precipitated an ugly battle.

Sometimes the fight is initiated by relatives and friends who felt left out – at other times the celebrity died with no will or estate plan at all. Whatever the circumstances, the messy squabbles over money and property should convince all of us to make sure our own estate plans are laid out clearly and thoroughly. None of us wants our family fighting over our estate, even if we don’t have millions and our house isn’t exactly Graceland.

Everyone Wants a Piece of a Celebrity’s Estate

Levinson-King begins, “From secret love children to beloved pets – when a celebrity dies, everyone wants a piece of the estate. In many cases, the ensuing court drama becomes as much a part of a celebrity’s legacy as anything they did while they were alive. The death of Lisa Marie, Elvis Presley’s daughter, appears to be no exception.”

The article goes on to explain that recently, Presley’s mother, Priscilla, “filed a legal challenge to the validity of Lisa Marie’s will. Ms. Presley is disputing an amendment that replaced her as trustee, and gave control of her assets to Lisa Marie’s children.” Now, inevitably, the dispute is heading for the courts in what will no doubt be another high-profile celebrity litigation. 

Sad Cases of Estate Battles Are Nothing New

Sadly, none of this is new. We’ve seen plenty of examples of this kind of thing before. Levinson-King notes the example of model Anna Nicole Smith, who battled her stepson for a share of her billionaire nonagenarian husband’s estate after he died 13 months into their marriage. This case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Similarly, singer Sonny Bono and socialite Gail Posner are other examples of a long line of celebrities who had contentious posthumous court battles over their estates, with family member pitted against family member and, in Posner’s case, family member against beloved companion chihuahuas who inherited a $3 million trust fund. (No one knows whether the canine millionaires testified in court.)

Adam Streisand, a top Hollywood trial lawyer at the heart of many of these types of cases, quips, “In this country, you know, where there’s a will there’s a way.”

Sometimes the Fight is Over More Than Money

Streisand is quick to point out that money isn’t always the core of the issue. Emotion plays a significant role as well.

“Most people, not just celebrities, have at least one bitter family story about a relative who got left out of a will,” Streisand says. “At the heart of many of these disagreements can be decades-old grievances. Sometimes, people fight to claim an inheritance because they are trying to create a close relationship they never had with that person while living.”

Adam Streisand himself actually is a distant relative of singer Barbra Streisand, so he understands how and why people can imagine connections with a celebrity that they don’t have. Levinson-King writes, “Growing up, [Adam] said people would always ask him about The Way We Were singer, which meant that even though he did not have a relationship with her, she was, in some ways, a part of his identity.”

“Now imagine if you are the child of a pop sensation, rock superstar or a movie star,” Streisand says. “And so when the person passes, the ability to try and establish a connection that you couldn’t establish during a person’s life intensifies.”

Sometimes the Fight is About “Ridiculous Nonsense”

Perceived slights can also add fuel to the fire of estate conflict. Streisand says, “The money involved is almost secondary. People do fight over smaller estates. And they fight over the most ridiculous nonsense, [like] pots and pans.” But when the figure in question is someone high-profile, that just ups the stakes and adds to the bitterness.

Levinson-King writes, “Lisa Marie’s estate includes ownership of Graceland, Elvis’ former mansion in Tennessee, which is now open to the public. That means that, to an extent, whoever controls her estate will also have control over the legacy of an American rock’n’roll icon.”

Jonathan Forster, a private wealth lawyer, says that most disputes come from people feeling an entitlement to the wealth and legacy of the person who passed, even if their connection was slim to none. “They feel that because they are related to the celebrity, that they should be entitled to something whether or not the document says that,” he says.

Too Many Advisers – or None at All

Another thing we’ve discussed here on the blog previously is the issue of celebrities having outdated wills, multiple wills, or, in some cases, no will at all. Aretha Franklin and Prince are two high-profile examples of the latter. In fact, Prince’s $156 million estate was only just settled this year. In the case of Bob Ross, the celebrity artist did a poor job of determining who would control his empire after his death, which allowed former business partners to leave Ross’s son out in the cold.

Levinson-King writes, “The two most common ways to dispute a will are to argue that a person lacked capacity to make changes to their estate, such as if they suffered from dementia, or if a person was subjected to undue influence, such as if a caregiver pressuring them to sign a document.”

However, that’s where the hard work begins. “But proving those claims is not cheap or easy,” she writes. “Challenging a will in court can cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in lawyers’ fees, although some lawyers will work based off of a percentage of the settlement.” What’s more, with especially large estates, some lawyers will offer to sue—even if no legitimate claim is present—just because they know they’re likely to get some cut from a quick settlement.

The final chilling words of the article belong to Forster, who says, “It’s kind of like free money. One thing I say to clients all the time – you can really sue for anything in this country.”

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(originally reported at www.bbc.com)

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