Prince Rogers Nelson (better known as Prince) made headlines in 2016 when his sister filed documents claiming that the entertainer died without a will.
As hard as that might be to believe, it’s not all that unusual. According to a 2015 Rocket Lawyer survey, 64% of Americans don’t have a will. Not surprisingly, the number is higher for younger Americans (70% of those aged 45-54) than for older Americans (54% of those aged 55-64 do not have a Will). Prince was 57.
Of those surveyed without a will, most (60%) indicated they simply haven’t gotten around to making one yet while just over a quarter (27%) don’t feel that it’s urgent. Why put it off? It’s depressing for one: folks don’t like to think about wills because it forces them to think about their own death. It’s also viewed as costly: people believe that lawyers are expensive and those same folks often underestimate the value of their assets, thinking that they don’t have much to distribute.
Typically, a will spells out who will serve as the executor as well as who will receive assets belonging to the decedent and under what terms. If you die without a will, you are considered intestate. Under intestacy laws, the distribution of your assets is pre-determined according to degree of relationship. Not only can’t you choose your beneficiaries without a will, you can’t dictate the person you want to manage your affairs. You can’t plan to reduce or eliminate inheritance and/or estate taxes, or income taxes. Simply put: without a will, you typically have no control over your own assets at death.
It’s a lot to leave up to the law but a majority of Americans do just that – including celebrities. Here are 17 famous people who died without a will:
One of the most famous lawyers of our time — and the 16th president of the United States — died without a will. Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, while attending the play at Ford’s Theatre. He died the next day.
His widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, and his oldest son, Robert T. Lincoln, requested that letters of administration be granted to Judge David Davis. Judge Davis was appointed to serve as administrator and divided the estate, estimated to be worth $85,000 at the date of death ($1,212,071.20 in today’s dollars) among Mary, Robert and Lincoln’s remaining son, Thomas.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot and killed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. King, a father of four, was just 39 years old. He did not have a will.
The young activist didn’t have a lot of tangible assets in his estate at the time of his death, with an estate said to be worth just $30,000 ($209,314.16 in today’s dollars) which likely contributed to his failure to plan.
King didn’t count on the value of his intangible assets, including the value of his image and copyrighted works. He had also not anticipated that assets he owned, including his Bible and his Nobel Peace Prize, would dramatically increase in value after his death.
His heirs didn’t agree on the best way to administer his estate and as of 2015, were still fighting it out in court.
On September 18, 1970, musician Jimi Hendrix was found dead in his apartment in London after what was deemed an overdose of drugs. He was only 27 years.
Hendrix, considered by some, to be one of the greatest guitar players of all time, had reportedly fathered two illegitimate children but after legal maneuverings, his fortune passed to his father, Al Hendrix, as sole heir.
More than thirty years – and several million dollars in fees – after his death, Hendrix’ family was still duking it out for control of the estate; the fight over Hendrix’ intellectual property continued into 2015.
Famous artist Pablo Picasso died on April 8, 1973, in Mougins, France. Despite reaching the ripe old age of 91, Picasso did not have a will.
At the time of his death, Picasso was married to Jacqueline Roque; his previous wife, Olga Khokhlova, died in 1955. Picasso had one son, Paolo (now deceased) with wife Olga, one daughter, Maya, with his mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, and two children, Claude and Paloma, with another mistress, Francoise Gilot. At his death, Picasso left behind “1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 7,089 drawings, 30,000 prints, 150 sketchbooks, and 3,222 ceramic works” as well as illustrated books, copperplates, and tapestries. He had five homes, $4.5 million in cash and $1.3 million in gold, as well as stocks and bonds, the value of which was never made public. In 1980, the estate was valued at $250 million ($770.94 million in today’s dollars) but estimates have gone much higher.
The fight over the distribution of his property took years and tens of millions of dollars and was eventually divided among his widow, children, and grandchildren. Fights over the rights to his image have continued over the years.
Entrepreneur and wildly successful businessman Howard Hughes died on board an airplane on April 5, 1976.
The famously reclusive billionaire had no legitimate children and was not married at his death, having been divorced twice, and left behind a slew of scandalous relationships including alleged dalliances with actresses Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, and Katharine Hepburn. Another actress, Terry Moore, eventually settled a lawsuit against the estate claiming she had been secretly married to the billionaire on a yacht in international waters (yes, she wrote a book about it).
Shortly after Hughes’ death, a handwritten will was produced which purported to split Hughes’ estate, which included a number of companies, seven Las Vegas casinos, an airport and several aircraft and a television station, collectively valued at somewhere north of $1.5 billion ($6.4 billion in today’s dollars). Eventually, the will was deemed a forgery, along with dozens of other alleged wills, and Hughes was declared intestate. His estate was divided in 1983 among his 22 cousins.
Jamaican singer/songwriter Bob Marley died on May 11, 1981, from cancer at the age of 36. Marley died without a will despite having the cancer diagnosis four years prior: supposedly, his Rastafarian faith barred him from thinking about his mortality. Marley was survived by his wife, Rita, and at least eleven children by eight different women. Under the Jamaican laws of intestacy, Rita would have only been entitled to 10% of Marley’s estate. To increase her share, Rita forged a number of documents to make it appear like assets had been transferred to her personally prior to Marley’s death. She eventually admitted the fraud and resigned as co-administrator.
The value of the estate at the musician’s death has long a source of speculation: Marley had little tangible property though his music and his image continue to pull in millions of dollars in royalties. He remains the top selling Jamaican artist of all time. His estate also promotes Marley Natural, the world’s first global marijuana brand.
On April 8, 1994, singer/songwriter and frontman for Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Seattle home; the official date of death was ruled to be three days earlier, on April 5, 1994. Just 27 years old, Cobain was survived by his wife, rocker Courtney Love, and daughter, Frances Bean Cobain.
Love and Frances Bean would go on to inherit the estate but the accompanying legal battles over copyright and other issues (including those with Dave Grohl and members of Nirvana) would go on to illustrate the real difficulties encountered with a lack of planning for the disposition of intangible assets. In 2015, Cobain just missed the top 13 on Forbes’ list of the top-earning dead celebrities.
One of the great unsolved mysteries of the music world remains “What happened to Tupac?” The mega-successful rap artist and promising actor was killed on September 7, 1996, when he was shot four times while stopped at a red light in Las Vegas. He was 25 years old. His killer was never found and conspiracy theories abound from suggestions that it was a revenge killing carried out by the Southside Crips to the notion that it was all staged and Tupac is not actually dead (yes, that’s a real theory).
Tupac was not married at the time of his death (although he was engaged) and he had no children. In the absence of a will, Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, inherited his estate which continued to make money well after Tupac’s death. Tupac’s biological father, Billy Garland, lost a legal battle to claim half of the estate; Garland had never officially been recognized as Tupac’s father (Tupac’s birth certificate notes that his father was deceased) even though but a DNA test appeared to confirm paternity.
In 2016, Afeni Shakur’s ex-husband sued Shakur for alimony and is seeking a portion of income from her son’s estate.
Salvatore Phillip “Sonny” Bono
Sonny Bono died on January 5, 1998, due to injuries sustained in a skiing accident in Lake Tahoe, California. At the time of his death, Bono, then a U.S. Congressman, was 62 years old.
The former actor and singer was married to Mary Bono at his death: he had been married three times before including to entertainer Cher and had fathered four children, Christy, Chianna, Chesare, and Chastity (Sean Machu initially made a claim to being Bono’s fifth child but withdrew his lawsuit when a DNA test was required). Bono’s probate estate was valued at $1.66 million at his death ($2.43 million in today’s dollars).
Known for his distinctive, soulful voice, Barry White passed away on July 4, 2003, from a stroke related to kidney failure.
White struggled with weight-related health problems for most of his life but yet, at age 58, he had not drafted a will.
White was married twice and had fathered eight children: a ninth was born just weeks before White died. And that’s where things get complicated: White’s girlfriend, Katherine Denton, sued the estate claiming that she was owed money related to the birth of their child, Barianna, but a demand for DNA proved the child was not White’s.
Author Stieg Larsson who penned the famous Millennium series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) died on November 9, 2004 in his native Sweden of a heart attack. He was 50 years old.
Larsson was not married but had bene in a relationship with his longtime partner, Eva Gabrielsson, for his entire adult life. Larsson did execute a will in 1977 leaving his money to the Communist Workers League but it was not witnessed so it was deemed not valid.
In the absence of a valid will, Gabrielsson received nothing, and Larsson’s father and brother received his entire estate; Gabrielsson has since claimed that Larsson had maintained little contact with his family. The squabble over Larsson’s works continues.
The Godfather of Soul died at an Atlanta, Georgia, hospital from congestive heart failure resulting from complications due to pneumonia on Christmas Day 2006. He was 73.
The flamboyant entertainer actually did sign a will on August 1, 2000, in front of Strom Thurmond, Jr., an attorney (and yes, son of former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina). The will was separate from an irrevocable trust which had also be created in order to distribute certain business assets.
Two weeks after his death, it was revealed that Brown’s estate left a significant portion to charity with the remainder benefitting his living adult children. The will did not include a bequest his then wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, who was more than 30 years his junior, nor did it include a bequest to James Joseph Brown II, Hynie’s son by the singer.
Hynie, of course, challenged the will on the grounds that she was Brown’s spouse at his death and therefore, by law, could not be disinherited. Brown’s children also filed a lawsuit, claiming that the will which had been offered for probate was not valid. The lack of a valid will has the same effect as not having a will (it’s as if the invalid will doesn’t exist).
Eventually, those initially appointed under the will to administer the estate stepped down and a settlement was reached; that settlement was thrown out. The Supreme Court of South Carolina stepped in and as of last year, litigation over the estate continues.
NFL quarterback and Pro Bowler Steve McNair, who led the Tennessee Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV, was killed on July 4, 2009, as part of a murder-suicide committed by his girlfriend, Sahel Kazemi. He was 36 years old.
Despite having a girlfriend, McNair was survived by his wife, Mechelle McNair, who is the mother of two of his four children. He had no valid will at his death though ESPN reported that he had wills drafted but did not sign them.
At the time of his death, McNair’s estate was valued at $19.6 million ($22.05 million in today’s money). The money has been largely tied up in litigation.
Under Tennessee intestacy law, the surviving spouse is generally entitled to a third of the estate and the decedent’s children are entitled to the remainder. The parents receive nothing. However, McNair had been generous to his mother, Lucille McNair, during his lifetime, gifting her the use of a home and other property. In 2011, McNair’s wife, Mechelle, evicted Lucille from the home and sued, demanding a return of personal property.
Rapper and actor Nate Dogg died on March 15, 2011, in Long Beach, California, from complications related to a series of strokes. Dogg, whose real name is Nathaniel Dwayne Hale, was just 41.
At the time of his death, Hale was separated – but not divorced, from his wife, Latoya Calvin. Hale also left behind six children, but no will, setting the scene for arguments with Calvin over the distribution of his assets.
In 2015, Naijel Hale, Hale’s son, filed documents accusing Calvin of being responsible for the car accident that allegedly caused Hale’s strokes.
British performer Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011. She was just 27 years old.
Winehouse had no children. She had previously been married to Blake Fielder-Civil, though Fielder-Civil was in prison for a significant period of their short marriage which began in 2007; their divorce was made final in 2009.
With no spouse and no children, Winehouse’s estate worth an estimated $4.66 million after debts and taxes would be payable to her parents. Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, was named administrator of the estate.
Prince Rogers Nelson, better known to the world as Prince, died on April 21, 2016, at his home at Paisley Park.
According to documents filed by his sister, Tyka Nelson, Prince died without a will. Nelson has asked for the appointment of a special administrator to manage her brother’s estate, including the valuation of assets, the continuation of Prince’s business affairs, and the determination of heirs.
According to Nelson, Prince had no surviving spouse, no children, and no living parents. Prince is survived, according to Nelson, by herself (the only full sibling); John Nelson (half-brother); Norrine Nelson (half-sister); Sharon Nelson (half-sister); Alfred Jackson (half-brother); Omar Baker (half-brother); and Lorna Nelson (deceased half-sister).
Okay, this one’s a bit of a tease. When the King of Pop died on June 25, 2009, he left behind three children (Prince Michael II or “Blanket”, Paris-Michael Katherine and Michael Joseph Jackson Jr) but no spouse: Jackson’s two prior marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe ended in divorce.
The month after Jackson’s death, his mother, Katherine, filed papers claiming that Jackson did not have a valid will (similar to what Prince’s sister filed).
However, a flurry of wills were eventually offered for probate and one was accepted as the pop star’s legitimate will. That doesn’t mean the estate is settled: taxes on the estate are still being litigated.
Since his death, Jackson’s estate has only become more valuable. Earnings from Jackson’s estate have topped $1 billion following his death.
Years ago, I found myself sitting in law school in Moot Court wearing an oversized itchy blue suit. It was a horrible experience. In a desperate attempt to avoid anything like that in the future, I enrolled in a tax course. I loved it. I signed up for another. Before I knew it, in addition to my JD, I earned an LL.M Taxation. While at law school, I interned at the estates attorney division of the IRS. At IRS, I participated in the review and audit of federal estate tax returns. At one such audit, opposing counsel read my report, looked at his file and said, "Gentlemen, she’s exactly right." I nearly fainted. It was a short jump from there to practicing, teaching, writing and breathing tax. Just like that, Taxgirl® was born.