17 Famous People Who Died Without A Will

Kelly Phillips Erb
Written by Kelly Phillips Erb

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:

Abraham Lincoln

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. 

Died Without A Will
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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.

Jimi Hendrix

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.

Pablo Picasso

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.

Howard Hughes

Entrepreneur and wildly successful businessman Howard Hughes died on board an airplane on April 5, 1976.

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About Kelly Phillips Erb
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.