Famous Actors and their Infamous Estates

June 26, 2019

More money, more problems.  Year after year movie stars wow us with stellar performances on-screen and stellar results at the box office.  Surprisingly, these same stars wowed their families by leaving behind a less than stellar financial mess after their death. 

Estate planning can be tricky, and for actors with mega assets, the stakes for their heirs are even higher. Living a glamorous lifestyle often comes with complexities such as divorce, birth of children from prior relationships, and a slew of professionals such as financial advisors, attorneys, accountants, and managers, purportedly looking out for the stars’ “best interests.” While laws differ depending on the state of domicile, everyone, including celebrities, should seek proper legal representation in the state they reside in to draft their estate plan. Yet this is not always the case.  Below are three prominent examples of infamous estates left behind by famed celebrities.

Marlon Brando – Cognitive Decline Led to Estate Litigation

Marlon Brando, best known for his iconic role as Don Vito Corleone in the “The Godfather” is a textbook example of how cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia, can lead to financial elder abuse and cause estate battles amongst family members. 

Brando acted strangely in the days leading up to his death.  First, he signed a new amendment to his Last Will and Testament just days before he died.  Second, he replaced his personal assistant of 50 years and a business manager of 40 years with new executors to carry out his final wishes.  One of the most obvious signs of cognitive impairment is when an elderly person makes sudden changes to their estate plan and swaps out life-long confidantes with new friends.

Despite Brando’s enormous wealth and best intentions to leave behind an estate to his family members, when he died in 2004 at the age of 80, his estate became entangled in more than two dozen lawsuits. This Hollywood legend had children from three different marriages, each ending in divorce.  He had children with other partners as well. Some of Brandon’s children were disinherited, perhaps intentionally or perhaps not, which resulted in more litigation.

When it comes to estate planning, especially for those with complicated personal lives, it is crucial that individuals such as Brando get all their legal documents in order before mental capacity becomes an issue.  Otherwise, a lucrative estate is destined to become embroiled in ongoing legal battles.

Patrick Swayze – Inheritance War Between Family and Widow

Hollywood hunk Patrick Swayze passed away in 2009 at the age of 57 after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer.  He was survived by his wife, Lisa Niemi. Patrick and Lisa shared 34 years of marriage as well as Patrick’s beloved parcel of real estate, Rancho Bizarro. 

Although Patrick did not have any children, Patrick’s close family desired to turn the ranch into a museum to honor the late actor’s legacy.  Patrick’s Last Will and Testament allegedly left everything to his wife. His wife, in turn, inherited and then sold everything, including the Ranch.  Although the family tried their hardest to buy the property with last-minute offers, the ultimate decision came from Lisa. Family members claim that, due to his ailing health at the time of the document’s apparent signing, the Will was forged.

In retaliation, his widow said that she is honoring her late husband’s legacy by auctioning off his iconic pieces, such as the leather jacket worn in the 1987 classic film “Dirty Dancing” and the silk maroon shirt he wore in “Ghost.” The auction occurred in April 2017, and Lisa donated a portion of the proceeds to The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN).

We may never know Patrick’s true intentions regarding his assets and his memorabilia. We do know that the only way to avoid legal battles within the family is to put your wishes in writing, either through a Will or a Trust, so that there is no grey area or confusion left behind for your family members to sort out.

Paul Walker – Teaching us Great Estate Planning Lessons

In November 2013, Paul William Walker IV, the star of the iconic Fast & Furious movies, died at the age of 40 as a passenger in a high-speed car accident.  Walker embodied the ultimate car and life enthusiast. He was just as enthusiastic about creating a sound estate plan to provide for his teenage daughter, Meadow.  Walker’s father opened his son’s estate with the court and shed some light on the legacy Walker left behind:

  • First, the probate filing revealed that Walker has assets of about $25 million dollars, of which $8 million was personal property, $8.5 million was anticipated future income, and another $8.5 million was invested in real estate.
  • Second, the court filing shows that Walker had a Revocable (Living) Trust, of which his daughter was the sole beneficiary. Walker’s Trust says that his young daughter will receive his millions through controlled distributions and not a lump sum when she turns 18. A Revocable Trust is the best estate planning tool for most people.  If properly handled, a Trust avoids the long, expensive, and very public, court probate process.
  • Third, instead of naming Meadow’s mother as her guardian, Walker named his mother, Meadow’s grandmother, as the guardian of Meadow’s person and property.  This does not mean that Meadow’s natural mother gets cut out of the picture. It merely states that Meadow’s grandmother will handle the distributions of money that will go to Meadow according to the terms of Walker’s Trust.  Also, if something did happen to Meadow’s natural mother, the Trust states that Meadow’s grandmother is the next in line to be her guardian.
  • Fourth, Paul Walker created all his estate planning documents at the young age of 28 years old. This provides a valuable lesson that no one should wait until they are “old” to do estate planning.
  • Fifth, although Walker created his estate planning documents in his 20s, he did not update them in the 12 years prior to his untimely death.  12 years is too long to not update your legal documents. Walker had a girlfriend of seven years that was not mentioned in his Trust or Will. Every five years is a good time to revisit your estate planning documents to make sure that all of your life changes as well as changes in the law are reflected.  

Contact OC Estate & Elder Law at (954) 251-0332 or info@ocestatelawyers.com to learn how effective estate planning and asset protection can protect your family’s story, even after you are out of the picture.