Celebrities Who Died Without a Will
While it's estimated that anywhere from 50% to 65% of adult Americans haven't taken the time to make a last will and testament, it's even more surprising to learn that quite a few celebrities failed to make a will. Among them:
As a lawyer and the sixteenth president of the United States, many will be surprised to learn that Abraham Lincoln didn't make a will before he died. A little more than two years after his assassination in 1865, Mr. Lincoln's intestate estate, valued at $110,300, was equally divided three ways among his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and his two sons who were living at that time, Robert and Thomas. Lincoln's estate would now equate to a few million in today's dollars.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a civil rights activist who faced death threats, it is surprising that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't make a will. And while Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, today his family is still fighting over control of his estate. It was only a few years ago that the King children were at odds about how the corporation that had been set up to oversee the estate was being run. In 2014 they battled over his Nobel Peace Prize medal and personal traveling Bible. His daughter wants to keep these items, and his sons want to sell them.
A perennial top-earning celebrity, singer and songwriter Jimi Hendrix died in 1970 at the young age of 32. Without a will, Mr. Hendrix's estate ended up in the hands of his father, Al Hendrix. The senior Hendrix received the estate after a battle with two children that the singer/songwriter allegedly fathered out of wedlock.
Shortly after eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes died in 1976. A handwritten will surfaced that was being held by an official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City.
The will was dubbed the "Mormon Will." It left $1.56 billion to several charities, as well as:
- Nearly $470 million to executives of Hughes' companies and his aides
- $156 million to Hughes' first cousin, William Lummis
- $156 million split equally between his two ex-wives, Ella Rice, and Jean Peters
- $156 million to a gas-station owner named Melvin Dummar
Dummar claimed that he had met Hughes at his gas station in 1967 and had driven the billionaire to Las Vegas.
A few days later, a mysterious man appeared at the gas station and gave a document to Dummar for safekeeping. The document turned out to be Mr. Hughes' will, which Dummar then gave to the church official. A trial was held in Las Vegas in 1978 in which a jury determined that the Mormon Will was a forgery. So, in the end, 22 intestate heirs inherited Mr. Hughes' massive estate.
While it may seem surprising that singer and songwriter Bob Marley—diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 1977 and dying four years later at the young age of 36—didn't have a will. Apparently, his religious beliefs prevented him from making such a document.
That lack led to an interesting fight over the rights to his estate among his widow, Rita, and thirteen children. Add to the legal brawl that Mr. Marley's lawyer and accountant convinced Rita to forge some documents after the singer/songwriter's death, and you have the makings of a movie. The forgeries would give control of the entire estate to her.
Marley has been a top-earning celebrity for many years. He earned $20 million between 2013 and 2014 alone. And, as recently as 2011, the Marley estate was in a court battle with Mr. Marley's half-brother.
The frontman for the Seattle grunge band, Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1994. He was only 27. But while the singer/songwriter left behind a detailed suicide note, he failed to leave a will.
Cobain was survived by his wife, Courtney Love, and a young daughter, Frances Bean Cobain. A trust known as the NMWH Trust was established for the benefit of Frances Bean, and although Love was not in charge of the trust, she was given trust accountings. In 2009 Love lost custody of Frances Bean, then 17, and in 2010 the rights to Kurt Cobain's name, likeness, and appearance were taken from Love and given to Frances Bean.
Steve McNair, who became famous as an NFL quarterback for the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens, was murdered by a girlfriend in 2009. He was only 36. Mr. McNair left behind a $20 million estate, a wife, and four children, but no will.
It may surprise some to learn that under Tennessee's intestacy laws, McNair's wife, Jonula "Mechelle" McNair, only received a portion of the estate. The balance went to the two children she had with her husband, as well as two other children McNair had out of wedlock. Others, including McNair's mother, Lucille, received nothing.
While we will never know what Mr. McNair would have really wanted to happen to his estate had he taken the time to make a will, it is doubtful that he would have wanted his mother to lose the home he bought for her. In addition, he could have made a plan that would have minimized or totally avoided $3.7 million in federal estate taxes and Tennessee estate taxes.
British singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse died in 2011 as the result of accidental alcohol poisoning at the age of 27. Although initially it was reported that she had left a will, in the end, British court records revealed that the singer's $4.66 million estates went to her parents, Mitch Winehouse and Janis Winehouse.
In the years following Ms. Winehouse's death, her parents have established The Amy Winehouse Foundation. According to the foundation's U.S. website, “The Amy Winehouse Foundation USA’s mission is supporting and empowering children in need through music therapy and music education and works to prevent the effects of drug and alcohol misuse on young people.”
The singer-songwriter passed away in April 2016 after a career that spanned five decades and saw him nab seven Grammy Awards. By some reports, he had assets totaling $300 million at the time of his death. But according to a court filing by his sister, Prince did not draw up a will before his death. This lack left the fate of his estate up in the air.
Lessons Learned From Intestate Celebrity Estates
The one big lesson that can be learned from these intestate celebrity estates is that without a will, a big old mess will be left behind. And in many cases, these messes can take years to be sorted out after thousands of dollars are spent in attorneys' fees. But most importantly, these celebrity estates show that intestacy laws will dictate who gets what, as opposed to what the person would have chosen had he or she taken the time to make a will.