Famous People Who Died Without A Will

Posted on June 28, 2017 by Freiwald Law

Most Americans don’t have a will.  The younger a person is, the more likely she is to not have one.  Everyone should have access to a quality and affordable lawyer to help prepare vital legal documents like a Will and an Advanced Directive (and, by the way, that’s why we started Community Legal Advisors!)

The amazing thing is that even famous people – celebrities, artists, even Presidents – sometimes die without a Will.  This is especially surprising because these people can certainly afford to pay the high rates that many lawyers charge for these services.

The stories of some famous people who died without a Will, and the years of headache and confusion they left behind for their families, show us all why planning ahead and preparing simple life-planning documents like a Will, is so important.

  1. Bob Marley

Bob Marley passed away from cancer in 1981. Marley’s diagnosis came well in advance of his death; there were about eight months where he knew he was dying. At his time of death, his estate was reportedly worth $30 million and there were dozens of claimants. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie. Marley’s wife, however, only received 10 percent of his assets under Jamaican law. This is a result that could have been avoided if Marley had made a Will.

For over 30 years after Marley’s death, his heirs were still battling in court over his estate.  After decades of fighting, his family was finally found to be entitled to Marley’s name and likeness. Like most battles, this one wasn’t without its casualties. Millions of dollars were spent on the litigation and family relationships were worn thin.

Although we don’t know what Marley would have wanted, it’s safe to say that this peace-loving musician wouldn’t have loved this outcome. It looks like Mr. Marley shouldn’t have just assumed that every little thing was gonna be alright.

  1. Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix was a musical pioneer who died unexpectedly in 1970 from a drug overdose. Hendrix died at the young age of 27 and although he is the first member of the 27 club (a list of celebrities who have all died at the age of 27) on our list, he isn’t the last.

When Hendrix died, his father Al fought with two children who Hendrix allegedly fathered out of wedlock. Ultimately, Al won and he inherited Hendrix’s entire estate. When Al died in 2002, he left Hendrix’s entire estate to his adopted daughter, Janie, while neglecting to leave his biological son anything. As you can imagine, this caused a lot of hurt feelings, leading to another legal battle between the siblings over their rights to Hendrix’s estate.

Hendrix died without a Will and his family spent millions of dollars and over 30 years, longer than Hendrix even lived, fighting amongst themselves over the rights to his property.

  1. Kurt Cobain.

Cobain has more in common with Jimi Hendrix than simply being another member of the 27 club. Cobain died in 1994 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He left a heavily publicized suicide note, but no Will. Because Cobain did not leave a Will to detail his wishes, his wife, Courtney Love, whom Cobain was considering divorcing before his suicide, gained control over his estate. This included the rights to his image, publishing and licensing rights, and performance royalties. Cobain’s estate eventually established a trust fund for his minor daughter, Frances Bean. Love, who had a documented history of mental health problems and addiction, eventually lost custody of Frances as well as her control over the trust established for Frances’ benefit.

  1. Amy Winehouse

Winehouse, who actually should have gone to rehab, is the third and final member of the 27 club on our list.  Winehouse, who died from alcohol poisoning, left a sizeable estate. Her estate was estimated to be $6.7 million (before it was reduced to $4.7 million because of taxes). With a little bit of estate planning, she could have potentially reduced the amount owed in tax to avoid losing such a large portion of her assets.

What’s more? She had a sibling and an ex-husband. There has been speculation that she would have wanted her ex-husband, who she reportedly loved very much, to benefit from her estate. However, because she didn’t have a Will, neither her ex nor her brother received anything from her. Instead, everything went to her parents. Winehouse’s parents used the money for a good cause. They created the Amy Winehouse Foundation, an organization that strives to empower children in need through music therapy and music education.

  1. Pablo Picasso

Picasso died in 1973 at the well-seasoned age of 91. He left behind a legacy of artistic brilliance, but no Will.

Picasso left behind artwork, multiple homes, cash, gold, and bonds. In 1980 Picasso’s estate was valued at $250 million. However, without a will his heirs were left to fight off outsiders who all wanted a piece of Picasso’s estate, including the French government which claimed that Picasso owed millions of dollars in back taxes.

Overall, it took Picasso’s heirs six years and $30 million to settle Picasso’s estate. This all could have been avoided with some even some basic estate planning.

  1. Steve McNair

It’s not only the creative types, the musicians and artists of the world who die without a Will. McNair was an NFL quarterback and Pro Bowler for the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens. McNair, who was 36 at his time of death, died unexpectedly in 2009. McNair left an estate worth $20 million, a wife, and four children.

As McNair made no Will, the laws of Tennessee decided for him. His wife only inherited a portion of his estate and the remaining assets were divided between his four children. Because McNair had no estate plan in place, his estate ended up owing $3.7 million in federal taxes.

This might not seem like such an unhappy result until we consider McNair’s mother. Before he died, McNair purchased a home for his mother to live in, but she received nothing from his estate and eventually lost her home. It’s impossible to say what he would have wanted because he didn’t have a Will, but it’s not such a hail mary to suggest that he wouldn’t have wanted his mother to lose the home he had purchased for her.

  1. Martin Luther King

Dr. King, a civil rights activist and champion for equality, regularly received death threats. Whether the threats came in the form of letters mailed to his home or a bomb being tossed outside of his living room, Dr. King was no stranger to facing the reality of his own death. In 1968, Dr. King was assassinated.

In 1995, Dr. King’s children agreed to sign over the rights for many personal items they had inherited to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., Inc., (a corporation that was created to manage the estate). Now Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice King is embroiled in yet another legal battle with her siblings over her father’s legacy. Her brothers seek to sell Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize medal and a bible that he traveled with.

These battles between the King siblings have caused a great rift in the family and have threatened to tarnish the legacy of Dr. King. No one knows what Dr. King would have wanted to happen to his personal belongings, but it’s doubtful that Dr. King, as an advocate for peace, would approve of the fighting over his estate.

  1. Prince

Prince died in April of 2016. If he’d have come to Community Legal Advisors, we would have saved his heirs a lot of trouble. Though his estate is reportedly valued at $200 million, Prince made no plans to control the distribution of his assets.

Prince is survived by a sister and five half siblings. Following his death, some 45 people came forward claiming they were entitled to a piece of his estate. Everyone who has been denied as an heir will have a year to appeal the Court’s ruling. Until that time, none of Prince’s heirs may receive their share.

Further, because there was no planning, nearly half of his estate will go towards taxes.  Since his death is so recent, it is too early to know how long the battles will last. One thing’s for sure, he would have benefited from having a Will.

  1. Abraham Lincoln

President Lincoln might be the most shocking person on this list, not only because he was the 16th President of the United States, but because he was a lawyer! President Lincoln should have been no stranger to the importance of a well thought out estate plan. When he was assassinated in 1865, he left behind three surviving heirs, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and two sons, Robert and Thomas Lincoln. His estate, valued at $110,300 was split equally between his three heirs.

The point of this list isn’t to show that only the richest and most famous people have problems from dying without a Will. No matter how smart, wealthy, talented, rich, famous, or well-connected you are, life happens and so does death. You might not have millions of dollars, but you do have loved ones who depend on you. Don’t neglect this vitally important legal document. A Will is a powerful way to ensure that the legacy you leave behind is a positive one.