Estate planning is NOT just for the rich and famous. Everyone should have an estate plan in place to ensure that their wishes for their assets and their healthcare decisions are followed. That being said, when the rich and famous make estate planning mistakes, the stakes tend to be high, and the disputes can be bitter. As the following three examples show, there’s a lot the average person can learn for Hollywood estate planning gone wrong.

Lisa Marie Presley

Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis Presley, died on January 12, 2023. According to Us Weekly, a legal drama has followed over who should inherit the estate. Lisa Marie’s daughter, Riley Keough, initially took ownership of the estate. However, Lisa Marie’s mother, Priscilla Presley, claimed that the 2016 amendment that named Riley Keough and brother Benjamin Keough as heir was invalid because the signature looked forged, the document was not witnessed or notarized and Pricilla was never notified. In a settlement, it was agreed that Riley will be the sole trustee (her brother has passed away) and Pricilla will receive a $1 million lump-sum payment and $400,000 in legal fees.

The Takeaway: Creating an estate plan is not a one-time event. As the years pass, your circumstances and wishes will change. You may have children, your children will grow into adults, you may get married or divorced, you may become closer to some relatives and less close to others… All of these changes need to be reflected in your will.

Updating your will, life insurance policy beneficiaries and other estate planning documents is critical, but it’s equally critical to go about these updates in the right way. A handwritten amendment may not be sufficient and may lead to legal battles. Consult an estate planning attorney to make sure the changes are clear and that they are properly witnessed and notarized.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin died of pancreatic cancer in 2018. According to CNBC, her sons then disputed which of two handwritten wills was valid. In Michigan, where Aretha Franklin lived, handwritten wills are considered legally acceptable. However, the fact that there were two wills complicated matters. Both wills outlined what should happen to the estate and income from copyrighted music, but there were some differences between how the two wills divvied up assets.

The Takeaway: Once again, this example shows the importance of valid estate planning documents that are done through the official channels. A handwritten will just doesn’t cut it. Although Michigan does recognize handwritten wills as legal, they can still lead to disputes. Additionally, in many states, handwritten wills are not accepted. Investopedia says that handwritten wills are only recognized in certain states, often with restrictions and limitations – and Oregon is not on the list of states that accept handwritten wills. The Oregon Bar says wills must be in writing and signed by you and two witnesses.

Aretha Franklin’s case also shows the importance of estate planning for non-tangible assets. Although many people focus on allocation of real estate, vehicles, jewelry and other physical assets, estate planning can also determine what happens to copyright ownership and digital assets.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, the singer-songwriter behind “Hallelujah,” died in 2016. Although he had a will, his estate has not escaped dispute. According to Variety, his two children have accused Robert Kory, his manager and legal representative, of forging documents. The Variety article goes on to say that in a deposition, Kory’s former attorney admits to removing a page from a signed trust and replaced it with one that named Kory as the primary trustee. There are also allegations that Leonard Cohen signed a document granting Kory a 15% commission on the sale of rights while under heavy medication.

The Takeaway: Financial elder abuse is unfortunately very common, and one doesn’t need to be a celebrity with millions of dollars in assets to become a target. Unscrupulous individuals may become close to elderly individuals in order to gain access to their assets. They may divert funds, forge documents, or manipulate the victim into rewriting estate planning documents and transferring deeds. Proving what has happened after the victim’s death is challenging, and by then, much of the damage has already been done. Family members should watch for the signs of financial elder abuse and take steps to stop it.

Avoiding Estate Planning Scandals

You want to leave a legacy for your heirs – not a bitter dispute. Hollywood estate planning gone wrong shows what not to do. Proactive estate planning can help you avoid conflicts and ensure that your wishes are followed. An estate planning lawyer can help you craft an estate plan that stands up to scrutiny and make updates as needed. Talk to a lawyer.


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