High Net Worth Celebs and Probate


We are only a little more than halfway through the month of February and so many noteworthy celebrities have already died in 2023. Richard Belzer, Tim McCarver, Raquel Welch, Burt Bacharach, David Crosby and Lisa Marie Presley just to name a few.

What will be interesting is to see how the estates of these high-profile celebs are handled, especially in the case of Elvis Presley’s daughter. With her father’s song catalog, we could see similar probate cases like what happened when Prince, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin died.

Already there has been news as reported in Forbes.com that Lisa Marie’s daughter Priscilla Presley has already filed a Court Challenge after her mom’s death

Lisa Marie Presley, the only child of Elvis Presley, died unexpectedly on January 12, 2023, at age 54. Weeks later, questions have emerged about what will happen to her fortune following a legal challenge by her mother, Priscilla Presley. When Elvis Presley died in 1977, he left a will that created a trust for the benefit of a pool of beneficiaries, including Lisa Marie, his grandmother, and his father. Under the terms of the trust, when Lisa Marie attained the age of 25 years—provided that both his father and grandmother were deceased—the trust would terminate, and the proceeds were to be distributed.

At the time of her father’s death, Lisa Marie was just nine years old. Her mother, Priscilla, stepped in to manage the estate. That included creating a strategy to benefit from Elvis’ royalties and image rights and turning Graceland into a tourist destination. By the time Lisa Marie turned 25 years old in 1993, the estate was reportedly worth $100 million. Today, Elvis continues to earn from beyond the grave, notching #4 on Forbes’ list of Highest Paid Dead Celebrities of 2022.

Immediately following her death, the Los Angeles Times reported that Presley’s children stood to inherit most of her fortune. In 1993, Lisa Marie had created a trust, as her father had done, which held, among other things, Presley’s beloved Graceland. A Graceland spokesperson reported that the trust that will now go to the benefit of Lisa Marie’s children, saying in an email to the Times, “Nothing will change with the operation or management.”

That may not be true. On January 25, 2023, Priscilla Presley filed a petition in Los Angeles Superior Court that could upend things. According to the court filings, on January 29, 1993, Lisa Marie Presley executed a revocable living trust naming her mother and her former business manager, Barry Siegel, as co-trustees. On January 27, 2010, she amended and completely restated her trust, leaving intact the named fiduciaries. Those facts are not in dispute. However, after Lisa Marie’s death, Priscilla was advised that there was a new document, allegedly in the form of a trust amendment dated March 11, 2016. That amendment removed the previously named co-trustees and replaced them with Lisa Marie as the current trustee, with her daughter, Riley Keough, and son, Benjamin Keough, as successor co-trustees. Benjamin Keough subsequently passed away in 2020. The petition alleges there are several problems with the 2016 amendment. Among them, the amendment was never delivered to Priscilla as required by the original trust terms. Additionally, there are issues with the document including that the date was added via .pdf and the trust misspells Priscilla’s name. No provisions of the amendment appear on the signature page, and Lisa Marie Presley’s signature does not match her usual signature. Finally, the 2016 amendment was not witnessed or notarized, and according to court documents, the original has not been located.

The petition argues that the 2016 amendment is “an invalid modification of the restated 2010 trust.” Priscilla seeks to invalidate the 2016 amendment and restore the restated 2010 trust as the “authoritative and controlling document.” It likely won’t be easy.  Even when interested parties believe that a case is a slam dunk, the legal process can be long and potentially difficult. In this case, despite some headlines suggesting that the dispute is about a will, the focus is on a living trust—sometimes called a revocable or inter vivos (“during lifetime”) trust. That distinction matters both in terms of procedure and proof. While a challenge to a will would be heard in probate court, a living trust is considered a nonprobate asset. Nonprobate assets are those that pass outside of the will—like life insurance policies and retirement accounts which pass to named beneficiaries—and may be treated differently.

However, according to the petition, under the probate code and related case law, probate courts in California have jurisdiction over living and testamentary trusts (meaning those that take effect after death) to hear arguments regarding the validity of trust agreements or amendments. The requirements for contesting a will can vary by jurisdiction but generally include allegations of undue influence, lack of capacity, fraud, forgery, or revocation. The time to bring a challenge is typically short—in some jurisdictions, a challenge can be dismissed as soon as three months after probate. It can often be a difficult process since the presumption is that a properly probated will is valid. While the requirements for disputing the validity of a living trust are usually similar—allegations of undue influence, lack of capacity, fraud, forgery, or revocation—it is generally considered more difficult to challenge a living trust than to contest a will. There are a few reasons, including that a living trust is more likely to be drafted by an attorney and not as a DIY document, which can add a layer of credibility. Additionally, the terms of a trust are typically known during lifetime, and trust assets may be administered during the trust creator’s lifetime, making the argument that they didn’t have capacity or were the victim of forgery or fraud hard to prove.

Whether a will contest or a trust challenge, the burden of proof is considerable. Neither a will nor a trust can be contested simply because you believe the provisions are unfair. So what comes next? Filing a petition to contest a will or challenge a trust is just the first step. The process can be lengthy with additional court filings, scheduled hearings, and a discovery process where the parties can gather evidence for a trial, if needed. A hearing in the Presley matter is scheduled for April 13, 2023.