10 celebrities who made unfortunate estate planning decisions

By Vanessa De La Rosa

Photo by: Penner/Flickr

Prince update written by: Carley Meiners

Many celebrities own large, diversified fortunes, have complicated family lives, and are met at every corner by family, friends and acquaintances looking for some extra dough. The failure to create a properly drafted will and explicitly clear estate plan can cause a legal and emotional uproar when the celebrity passes away.

After the passing of singer Prince, the discussion of wills and estate planning has once again become a dominant topic. It is unsure of whether Prince had a will, which obviously brings up the issue of where his estate will ultimately end up. Under Minnesota state law, an unmarried individual with no children's wealth goes to their grandparents, parents and siblings when no will is set in place. According to the Daily Mail, Prince's estate will end up in the hands of his sister Tyka Nelson.

*Editor's note: Stay tuned next week for our editor Kristen Beckman's interview with Darren Wallace, an estate lawyer with Day Pitney, about what Prince's death and potential estate issues can teach us all about estate planning.

While less-than-perfect estate planning is rampant among all socio-economic classes, here is a list of 10 celebrities who failed to put their affairs in order before their deaths — costing their loved ones, in certain cases, large amounts of money and anguish, and in other cases, benefiting individuals who might not have been in good standing with the deceased.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

1. Jimi Hendrix

In September 1970, legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix passed away at the age of 27, and the details surrounding his death have been widely disputed. One detail that isn’t debatable, however, is that the musician did not have a will. For nearly 20 years, a California attorney managed the estate until Jimi’s father, Al Hendrix, sued and won the rights to Jimi’s music. With this stake in the estate, Al Hendrix went on to create various trusts, partnerships and corporations.

The estate was worth an estimated $80 million in 2002, when Al died and left the estate to his adopted daughter, Janie Hendrix, from a later marriage. Jimi’s half-brother, Leon Hendrix, who was reportedly very close with Jimi, sued to be written back into the will, claiming that Janie manipulated her father into cutting Leon and other relatives out of any inheritance. In the same suit, other beneficiaries alleged that Janie was mismanaging trust funds. Although the judge ruled that “Janie was the family member Al trusted the most,” some small victories were granted to Leon’s side.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

2. Princess Diana

In August, 1997, Princess Diana of Wales died in a car accident in Paris, leaving her two sons and 17 godchildren behind. Among her estate planning documents was a “letter of wishes,” which stated that a quarter of her personal possessions were to be distributed to her godchildren; however, the letter of wishes was non-binding since it was not incorporated into her will or trust. The executor of her estate did not carry out her wishes, and instead, her godchildren received only small trinkets.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

3. Sonny Bono

In January 1998, recording artist, record producer, actor and politician Salvatore Phillip "Sonny" Bono was killed in a skiing accident at the age of 62. Sonny left his widow, Mary Bono, without even a simple will or trust. Sonny also left behind four children — two adults and two minors at the time of his death — from a total of four marriages. Although Sonny had a surviving spouse, all of his children were entitled to a portion of his estate under California law. The court appointed Mary as the estate’s administrator, which was a daunting task, as she had no instructions on how to sort out distributions. To add fuel to the fire, Mary Bono later had to defend a claim from a love child who came forward and filed as an heir-at-law, as well as a claim from Sonny’s famous ex-wife, Cher, who alleged that Sonny still owed her money from their divorce.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

4. Marilyn Monroe

In August 1962, iconic actress, model and singer Marilyn Monroe died of “acute barbiturate poisoning” in her bedroom at the age of 36. In her will, Monroe left her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, three-quarters of her estate. When Strasberg died, his interest in Monroe’s estate was passed along to his third wife, Anna. Anna eventually hired a company to license Marilyn Monroe products and profited significantly from a woman she had never known.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

5. Jim Morrison

In July 1971, “The Doors” front man and singer-songwriter Jim Morrison died at the age of 27 in Paris, allegedly of a heroin overdose, though the exact cause of his death is still disputed because no autopsy was performed. Morrison left his entire estate to his girlfriend, Pamela Courson. When Courson died from a heroin overdose three years later, her parents became heirs of her estate, which included the interest in Jim Morrison’s estate.

Morrison’s parents contested the will, but Courson’s parents provided documents that Jim Morrison and Pamela Courson had contracted a common-law marriage, which meant Courson would inherit the estate as Morrison’s spouse, even if the will was invalid. A 1980 People magazine article states that both families split the estate’s royalties and earnings.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

6. Florence Griffith-Joyner

In September 1998, the Olympian sprinter better known as “Flo Jo” suffocated in her sleep due to a severe epileptic seizure. Her surviving husband was not able to locate her will, and thus could not file it with the California probate court within the required 30 days. To further complicate things, Joyner’s mother brought a dispute to court, citing that Joyner had promised she could live in her home for the rest of her life. Since the original will was never filed, the judge eventually appointed a third-party administration to the estate. The case took over four years to close.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

7. Marlon Brando

In July 2004, screen and stage actor Marlon Brando died of respiratory failure from pulmonary fibrosis with congestive heart failure, at the age of 80, leaving behind an estate estimated at more than $20 million. His housekeeper, Angela Borlaza, claimed that Brando verbally promised her continued employment and the house she lived in, saying that he left it in his name for tax purposes. Borlaza sued Brando’s estate executors, alleging that she was a victim of a broken oral contract and accusing the executors of transferring power over to themselves via a codicil to Brando’s will. Borlaza eventually agreed to settle all claims for $125,000.

8. Doris Duke

In October 1993, tobacco and energy heiress Doris Duke suffered progressive pulmonary edema, which resulted in cardiac arrest and her death at the age of 80. Duke left virtually all of her $1.3 billion fortune to several charitable foundations, and she appointed her butler, Bernard Lafferty, as executor. The court eventually removed Lafferty from Duke’s will for using estate funds for his own gain.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

9. Warren Burger

In June 1995, former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger died from congestive heart failure at his home in Washington, D.C. Burger left behind an estate worth $1.8 million and a self-written will of 176 words. Because Burger’s will lacked key provisions, his family paid $450,000 in estate taxes, and the executors had to pay to go to court to receive approval to complete typical administrative tasks allowed by a well-drafted will.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

10. Leona Helmsley

In August, 2007, Leona Helmsley, multibillionaire and widow of real estate magnate Harry Helmsley, died of congestive heart failure at the age of 87. According to a 2009 article in The New York Times, Helmsley intended that $12 million should go toward the care of her dog, Trouble. New York-based attorney Herb Nass notes that Helmsley was “an enormously wealthy person, and for her to leave so much to a dog and nothing to two grandchildren just makes me think she did not quite understand the extent of her wealth in some ways.”

Ultimately, a judge reduced the amount of Trouble’s trust fund to $2 million and ruled the disinherited grandchildren to receive a $6 million settlement.

See also:

6 celebrities who made unfortunate life insurance decisions

Young celebrity deaths underline need for executor planning services