Summary: This article highlights ten notable estate disputes involving celebrities and other famous individuals. Some of the most famous cases include Howard Hughes, who died without a will, leading to a decade-long legal battle; Anna Nicole Smith, who fought for a share of her late husband’s $1.6 billion estate; and Prince, whose unexpected death without a will left his multi-million-dollar estate up for grabs among his siblings. These cases illustrate the importance of proper estate planning and demonstrate that money and fame do not guarantee happiness.
“Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate.” – Ambrose Bierce
Death comes to us all, and celebrities are no different than the rest of us in that regard. Their families, like most, have their own unique history with intricate webs of rivalries, relationships, and jealousies that remained hidden behind a carefully cultivated, public-relations veneer of familial harmony and happiness. Often, this family disfunction becomes known to the broader public only after the celebrity’s death, when surviving loved ones go to court and vie for control of the deceased’s sizeable estate.
Sordid details of the celebrity’s private life and allegations of greed, lust, and manipulation fill the pages of court documents, destroying the privacy that the deceased celeb had spent a lifetime trying to maintain. The details that emerge through these estate battles show us that life of a celebrity is not so different than that of our own. These highly publicized affairs and the significant harm they cause to both finances and family relationships also highlight the importance of a good estate plan so as to try and avoid a probate dispute in your own family after you die.
To illustrate this point, here are ten notable estate disputes involving celebrities, billionaires, and other notable persons that were waged under the public eye and which now occupy our collective memories as a poignant reminder that money and fame do not, in fact, buy happiness:
- Howard Hughes (1905-1976): When the reclusive billionaire businessman and aviator died, he left no will, sparking a drawn-out and complex legal battle over his estate. Multiple parties, including individuals claiming to be his heirs and individuals who produced fraudulent wills, vied for a share of his fortune. The absence of a valid will led to various conspiracy theories and even a film based on the probate case, “Melvin and Howard” (1980). Ultimately, Hughes’ estate was divided among 22 of his distant relatives, but the legal battle lasted for over a decade.
- Anna Nicole Smith (1967-2007): The former Playboy model and actress married oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, who was 62 years her senior. Upon his death, a legal battle ensued over his $1.6 billion estate, as Smith claimed her late husband had promised her half of it. Her stepson, E. Pierce Marshall, contested her claims, leading to a protracted battle that reached the US Supreme Court. The dispute continued even after Smith’s death, with her estate fighting for a share of Marshall’s fortune.
- James Brown (1933-2006): After the Godfather of Soul passed away, his estate became the center of a complex dispute involving his surviving family members, alleged illegitimate children, and claims of a tampered will. Brown’s will had explicitly excluded his former partner, Tomi Rae Hynie, and her son, James Brown II, from inheriting any portion of his estate. The protracted legal battle led to numerous revisions and settlements, which delayed the distribution of Brown’s assets to the intended beneficiaries, such as educational scholarships for underprivileged children.
- Prince (1958-2016): The iconic musician died unexpectedly without a will, leaving his multi-million-dollar estate up for grabs among his sister and half-siblings. The probate process was further complicated by claims from alleged heirs and disputes over the value of his assets, including unreleased music and his Paisley Park estate. The legal battle also led to issues with the administration and management of Prince’s estate, which took years to resolve. Ultimately, a judge ruled that his assets would be divided among his sister and five half-siblings.
- Michael Jackson (1958-2009): The King of Pop’s estate was the subject of numerous legal battles, including a contested will, allegations of fraud, and disputes over the management and distribution of his assets. His mother, Katherine Jackson, challenged the appointment of the estate’s executors, while other family members alleged that the will was fake. Additionally, the IRS and Jackson’s estate clashed over the valuation of his assets, leading to further litigation. The ongoing disputes had a significant impact on the administration of Jackson’s estate and the distribution of his assets to his beneficiaries.
- Charles Dickens (1812-1870): When the famed author died, he left a will that was contested by his estranged wife, Catherine. Dickens had provided for his children and his longtime mistress, Ellen Ternan, but left his wife with an annual income that was significantly less than what she had been receiving during their separation. Catherine challenged the will, leading to a legal battle over the distribution of his assets. The dispute was eventually settled, with Catherine receiving a larger share of the estate than initially allocated by the will.
- Brooke Astor (1902-2007): The New York socialite’s estate became the subject of a legal battle between her son, Anthony Marshall, and her grandson, Philip Marshall. Philip accused his father of mismanaging Astor’s finances, selling her valuable artwork, and mistreating her during her final years. The allegations led to a criminal investigation, which ultimately resulted in Anthony being convicted of grand larceny and other charges. Although he was initially sentenced to prison, Anthony was later granted medical parole due to his health. The legal battle led to a significant overhaul of Astor’s will, with much of her fortune going to charitable causes she had supported during her lifetime.
- Leona Helmsley (1920-2007): The will of the hotel magnate and “Queen of Mean” was infamous for leaving her dog, Trouble, a $12 million trust fund, while excluding two of her four grandchildren entirely. The excluded grandchildren challenged the will, alleging that Helmsley was not mentally competent at the time she made it. The legal battle resulted in Trouble’s inheritance being reduced to $2 million, with the remaining $10 million being divided among the two excluded grandchildren and charitable causes. The case highlighted the importance of considering mental capacity and undue influence when creating a will.
- Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970): The legendary guitarist died without a will, leading to a long and complex battle over his estate. Initially, Hendrix’s father, Al Hendrix, inherited his son’s assets, but upon his death, a series of legal disputes arose between Jimi’s siblings and other family members. Issues surrounding the management of Hendrix’s music rights and the allocation of his estate persisted for decades. The legal battles have had a significant impact on the way Hendrix’s music has been released and managed, with various parties vying for control over his legacy.
- Marlon Brando (1924-2004): The acclaimed actor’s estate was the subject of numerous lawsuits, including disputes over the distribution of assets, the validity of certain bequests, and claims from former employees and business partners. Brando’s personal assistant, Angela Borlaza, sued the estate, alleging that the executors had coerced the actor into signing an altered will while he was on his deathbed. In addition, Brando’s longtime housekeeper, Maria Cristina Ruiz, sued for child support for their three children, who were not mentioned in the will. The protracted legal battles highlighted the importance of proper estate planning and the potential pitfalls that can arise in the absence of a clear and legally sound will.
An experienced estate planning attorney can help you take the steps necessary to minimize the possibility of an estate dispute after your death. However, it’s important to note that there is no way to completely eliminate the risk of a will contest or other probate litigation related to an estate. If an estate does become contested, then it’s critical to retain the services of a qualified probate litigation attorney to help guide you through the process.