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When Celebrities Die Without a Will

When Celebrities Die Without a Will

Wondering who inherits the vast estates of the rich and famous when they die without a will?


In the U.S., individuals who die without a will lose control over their assets by default. It’s a lost opportunity to assign appropriate beneficiaries and minimise the burden of inheritance tax. Often this results in disputes between those left behind. But how much more complicated does the battle for inheritance become if the individual was famous?

When most people die without a will, inheritance is of interest to a small group. But when celebrities die without a will, the public interest can attract attention far and wide.

You may have heard of the squabble over Tupac’s estate; a 40 million dollar dispute fought between family members after his untimely and unforeseeable murder at twenty-five. Fame certainly contributed to his wealth, but it also led to a money grab after his death.


Similarly, Prince, one of the most recognisable musicians of the modern era, died of an accidental drug overdose at 57 without a will. It took six years and considerable legal wrangling, all played out in the public arena, to sort out his 156 million dollar estate.

Law gravel and bag of money


Complicated Estates

The rich and famous often have complicated estates. They may range from tangible assets (think private jets and pet monkeys) to considerably more abstract wealth such as intellectual property (think royalties and song rights): the more complex the estate, the more expensive the process to determine its value. Often, considerable money is lost in the wash.


Dying without a will nullifies your opportunity to appoint an executor who assesses and values your estate before distributing it. As Prince passed up his right to choose, an executor was agreed upon by a majority of the potential beneficiaries, not an ideal scenario and one that attracted the scrutiny of the IRS, who claimed Prince’s estate was worth considerably more than previously disclosed.


Dying Without a Will

What happens to a wealthy person’s money when they die has been the fodder of gossip columns long before the prevalence of celebrity culture and the twenty-four-hour news cycle that feeds it.


Perhaps the most famous lawyer in the republic’s history, Abraham Lincoln, surprisingly died without a will. Luckily his estate was executed by a close family friend who just happened to be the U.S. Supreme Court Justice, David Davis. Still, we will never know if Lincoln intended his estate to go to his wife or split between her and his children.


Without a will when he died in 1973, Pablo Picasso left behind one wife, one ex-wife, a slew of mistresses and four children from three different women – another example of a public figure who could have benefited from getting his affairs in order. Leaving an estate many consider priceless, his heirs engaged in a lengthy court battle to state their claim. Now the riches have been carved up; they’ve progressed to arguing over the use of their father’s name, a commodity Picasso’s son, Claude, has recently seen fit to sell to Citroën.


Understanding Intestacy Laws

In the U.S., Intestacy Law, also known as Law of Descent and Distribution, determines the relevant beneficiaries of those estates without a formal declaration. Or, to put it simply – who gets what if the paperwork is missing. It’s fair to say that most of us wouldn’t want our beneficiaries determined by the state, but the system is in place to deal with the vacuum created when someone fails to declare their wishes. You may assume that the estate would go to a surviving partner or children, but this isn’t necessarily the case.


For all its spectacle, when a celebrity dies without a will, it can bring much-needed attention to the importance of estate planning. You may not be as legendary as Tupac, wealthier than Prince or more universally recognised than Abraham Lincoln, but you can certainly be more prepared.



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