Learning Probate Lessons from Celebrities

Celebs are always in the news and just seeing their names makes us want to learn what they’re up to. Celebrity gossip magazines like Us Weekly offer a popular section called “Celebs: They’re Just Like Us.” Of course, celebrities aren’t just like normal people. If they were, we wouldn’t pay so much attention to them after all. However, when it comes to learning lessons about estates, wills, and probate law, we can actually learn quite a bit from famous people and their probate mistakes.

Some of the world’s wealthiest and most famous people have died with no will or trust. These probate mistakes tied up their fortunes and caused their survivors to spend a lot of unnecessary money and time in court. Let’s take a look at some of the world’s most famous celebrities who errored big time when it came to ensuring their estate was secure after their death. In all of these cases, the famous celeb made probate matters very difficult for their heirs following their demise.



Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died of pancreatic cancer at age 76 on Aug. 16, 2018, without a will filed with any of her attorneys. As a result, her estate was expected to be split evenly among her four sons, and they agreed to install their cousin — Franklin’s niece and confidante, Sabrina Owens — as the estate’s executor. Then, in May 2019, Owens and longtime Franklin attorney David Bennett revealed that two handwritten documents were found in her Birmingham home — one from 2014 in a spiral notebook under her sofa cushions, the other from 2010 in a locked cabinet — that outline how Franklin wanted her estate divvied up and whom she wanted managing it. Millions of dollars were at stake. Franklin’s estate was estimated to be worth $17 million as of last summer, although Bennett says she owed $8 million in taxes at the time of her death. As is often the case with music icons, Franklin’s earning power increased exponentially upon her passing, but that all depends on how smartly her recordings and likeness are handled.

Probate lesson to learn: Your trustee and executor may have to make tough decisions. Consider naming executors and trustees who have no financial interest in your estate to reduce the risk of favoritism. Also, consider having only a single trustee and executor rather than a committee.


Passing away tragically at age 27, rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix left behind no will when he died. What he did leave behind was a long line of relatives, music industry bigwigs, and business associates who had an interest in what would become of his estate – both what he left behind, and what his intellectual property would continue to earn. An attorney managed the estate for the first two decades after Jimi’s death, after which Jimi’s father Al Hendrix successfully sued for control of the estate. But when Al attempted to leave the entire estate to his adopted daughter upon his passing, Jimi’s brother, Leon Hendrix, sued, launching a messy probate battle that left no clear winners.

Probate lesson to learn: When you don’t leave a will or trust, the effects can last for generations. An experienced estate planning attorney can help put your wishes in writing so they are carried out after your death rather than opening a door to costly conflict.


The court battle currently in development over the music artist Prince’s estate is a celebrity probate disaster in action. When the 80’s pop icon died in early 2016, he left no will, reportedly due to some previous legal battles that left him with a distrust of legal professionals in general. The lines are already being drawn for what will likely be a costly and lengthy court battle among Prince’s heirs. Sadly, there’s even a battle looming about determining, for certain, who his heirs actually are.

Lesson learned: Correct legal documentation protects your legacy. Don’t let a general distrust or a bad experience cause your heirs to fight and potentially lose their inheritance.

The probate attorneys at Thav, Ryke & Associates are here to help you protect your family and your estate. Call us today to ensure that you have your financial matters set up correctly and your heirs won’t wind up in probate court.