No one can predict the future, which is why many people don't stop to think about drafting their wills. These are legal documents that outline your final wishes and state how you want your assets and other property divided up. You can also name guardians of your young children if you have any.
Not leaving a will behind can lead to many problems. Sure, you may not be around to deal with the mess, but your family and closest friends may end up battling it out in court, especially if they feel like they've been left out in the dark. That's what happened—and in some cases, is still going on—with the estates of the following with celebrities who died without leaving wills behind.
- A will lays out how you want your property divided and who gets guardianship of your minor children.
- The absence of a will may lead to legal problems among your family and close friends.
- Celebrities like Aretha Franklin, Prince, and Sonny Bono didn't leave wills, which led to long court battles.
- Kurt Cobain's will was incomplete, according to his entertainment lawyer.
- Although James Brown left a will, it wasn't specific enough, especially relating to the status of his last partner, Tomi Rae Hynie.
Legendary singer Aretha Franklin died at the age of 76 on Aug. 16, 2018, after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. Though she didn't own a vast business empire, her holdings have significant value, including compositions of hit songs like “Think” and “Rock Steady," which will continue to generate substantial income even after her death.
According to original court documents, she died without leaving a will or trust. But the discovery of two handwritten notes found in Franklin's home put the future of her estate up in the air, leading to an ongoing and contentious battle between her sons. Her four sons listed themselves as interested parties in her estate, and her niece, Sabrina Owens—who was appointed as an estate representative—resigned in early 2020.
Putting a monetary value on her catalog, which includes copyright matters, song publishing, and record deals, is a tough task, and the absence of a will is proving to complicate matters further.
The unexpected death of the King of Pop in 2009 caused shockwaves around the world, leading to flash mobs and emotional tributes from fans and the music industry. It also brought uncertainty about the future of his estate because it was believed Jackson didn't leave a will, leading his mother Katherine Jackson to file a petition to allow her to take charge of her son’s estate.
But a will, signed by Jackson seven years before his death, was eventually discovered, naming his mother as the beneficiary of a trust and appointing her as a permanent guardian to his three children. His attorney John Branca and music executive John McClain were named as the administrators of his estate. But that didn't stop his mother from challenging their authority over the estate, according to reports.
Katherine eventually inherited most of her son's estate. But issues between the estate and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about the valuation of Jackson's likeness clouded the courts for years after his death.
Legendary singer Prince died at age 57 in April 2016. The circumstances surrounding his death were shrouded in controversy before an autopsy revealed the singer/songwriter died of a fentanyl overdose. The fact that he didn't leave a will also led to uncertainty about the future of his estate.
Court filings assessed his estate to be worth at least $200 million, thanks to his musical legacy and unreleased recordings. The absence of a will produced many claimants, including individuals purporting to be his earlier unknown wife, sibling, child, and distant relative. A Minnesota probate judge declared Prince’s six siblings as the heirs to his holdings in 2017.
But the distribution of assets was stalled following appeals filed by some would-be heirs. And the future of the estate was further complicated following the death of Alfred Jackson, one of Prince's brothers in August 2019. Jackson reportedly sold his rights to the estate to an entertainment company before his death, putting the future of the star's assets up in the air again.
The popular singer-musician may have died in 1970 but the feud over control of his estate continued long after. In fact, it lasted more than 30 years after his death among his siblings.
Hendrix's father AI Hendrix controlled the estate after the star's death. But after Al died in 2002, Jimi's sister Janie was left in charge of the musician's $80-million estate. The Washington State Supreme Court retained her right over the estate. But the battle continued between Janie and her brother, Leon, who was accused of trademark infringement. They settled the case in 2015. Details were not disclosed.
Some states don't require a will to be notarized, so it's important to check with a lawyer about what you need to do about your final wishes.
The Jamaican singer-songwriter who went on to become an international musical and cultural icon died of cancer in 1981 without leaving a will. His holdings were to be distributed among his wife and 11 children as per local laws. However, their entitlement to his name and likeness could be established only after a years-long court battle.
According to Forbes, Marley's estimated worth at the time of his death was $30 million. Marley's half-brother was sued by the estate for organizing tours and music festivals in his name, though the matter was later settled out of court. The estate also won a trademark infringement case, after a court ruled against a merchandiser who used Marley's image without the estate's permission.
Kurt Cobain left behind a fortune that was estimated to be worth more than $450 million. The Nirvana frontman died in his Seattle home from a drug overdose in 1994. Although his death was determined to be suicide, skeptics believe otherwise.
According to his entertainment lawyer Rosemary Carroll, Cobain wanted his wife Courtney Love taken out of his will, which was left incomplete. This argument led to many legal battles between Love and Cobain's Nirvana band partners, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic.
In 2010, Courtney Love gave up the rights to the late rock star's name and likeness for a loan. The couple's daughter, Frances Bean, who turned 18 in 2010, gained charge of the trust fund, which was around a third of the estate. According to court documents, this translates to more than $95,000 every month.
Sonny Bono died in 1998 while skiing. The accidental death of the entertainer-turned-congressman forced his wife, Mary Bono, to go through probate court to get access to her husband's estate.
But that didn't come without a fight. Ex-wife Cher took the estate to court for unpaid alimony and the absence of a will led to the appearance of a love child, though that claim was later withdrawn.
Bono’s estate was eventually divided between his wife Mary and his two children, Chaz Bono and Christy Bono Fasce.
Sometimes having a will isn't enough. In fact, you have to be thorough, as is the case with James Brown. Although the star dubbed the Godfather of Soul, died in 2006 with a will, it apparently wasn't clear enough and led to six lawsuits. The claims on his estate, which courts estimated to be worth as much as $100 million, were challenged in court even after his death.
The main point of contention revolved around Brown’s marital status at the time of his death, and whether Tomi Rae Hynie was his legal spouse. A South Carolina court ruled that Hynie was not Brown's legal spouse at the time of his death. This decision overturned a 2013 ruling in favor of Hynie, awarding her a quarter of Brown's estate.
The Bottom Line
A will sets the necessary clarity for the legal descendants to rightly inherit the holdings of the deceased. Owing to their big circle of acquaintances and public life, celebrities who die without a will set up the possibility that long lists of claimants will line up to try for a slice of whatever fortune they leave behind. The follow-up legal courtroom battles are not only costly but also time-consuming, as the cases above demonstrate.