Why do only rich people have wills? Because they have the luxury to afford it. NOT! I think you’ll be surprised at the number of rich and famous people who died without a will —or didn’t have an updated will—when they left this earth. Each eventually left behind a fortune, but millions (and millions!) of dollars was wasted on lawyers, avoidable taxes, and lawsuits.
So, without further ado, here’s our top 30 list of celebrities who should have done a much better job of planning their estates:
Aretha Franklin, 76
When The Queen of Soul died without a will in 2018, she left behind a musical legacy that spanned more than six decades. But she also left behind an estate worth up to $80 million, and an expensive legal mess for her family. Among the people with claims on her estate were four sons, a niece, and the federal government, which claims she owed $7.8 million in taxes. Franklin’s lawyer reportedly asked the singer “constantly” to create a trust, “but she never got around to it.”
Prince Rogers Nelson, 57
After he died in 2016, The Purple One’s $156 million estate was in limbo for six years because he hadn’t created a will or trust. The Associated Press reported that after Prince died, “more than 45 people came forward as potential heirs to his estate, with many claiming to be a wife, child, sibling or other relative.” That included an inmate who falsely claimed to be Prince’s son.
Amy Winehouse, 27
When the R/B singer died in 2011 without a will, her parents ended up inheriting her $4.66 million estate. Her father, Mitch Winehouse, acted as the administrator — and if some media reports are to be believed, he and his daughter didn’t get along. There were also reports that Winehouse still loved her ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, but he didn’t get a cent. That prompted him to file a $1.4 million legal claim on her estate in 2019.
Barry White, 58
Barry White was a singer, songwriter and composer with a resonant voice that made him beloved and famous. He died in 2003. The son of soul singer Barry White is suing the singer’s former wife saying he is nearly homeless and destitute because she refused to give him a fair share of his father’s estate. Daryl White sued Glodean White, the former spouse of Barry White and the sole executor of his trust, claiming she misled him about the need to formally declare his rights to a share in the trust and has stopped paying him promised money. And the lawsuits go on and on …
Bob Marley, 36
The reggae icon became a member of the no-will club when he died in 1981. It took over 30 years of contentious legal battles for his many heirs — family, band members, and ex-lovers — to settle his then-$11.5 million estate, which has since grown substantially. During that time, it was found that both Marley’s business attorney and accountant persuaded his wife to forge her husband’s name on estate documents to look like they predated his death. Oh, the lawsuits!
Jimi Hendrix, 27
When the guitar legend died intestate in 1970, the fight over his estate also took more than 30 years. Worth about $20,000 in 1979, that figure has since grown to about $175 million. When Hendrix’s father died in 2002, a new fight broke out between the siblings over the use of the singer’s image. Rolling Stone magazine reported a settlement in that case was finally reached in 2015 — 45 years after his death! And just this January, a new flurry of lawsuits began over unpaid rights and royalties allegedly owed to his deceased bassist and drummer.
Sonny Bono, 62
Sonny Bono, the other half of Sonny and Cher, died in a skiing accident in 1998. Since his entertaining days, he’d become a businessman, mayor and congressman — but never got around to making a will. His wife had to battle through probate court to become the executor of his $1.7 million estate. While his fortunes were finally divided between her and his two children, a child who claimed to be from a previous relationship made a claim on the estate as well. And his ex-wife and former musical partner, Cher, also filed a claim seeking back alimony.
Abraham Lincoln, 56
One of the most famous lawyers of all time—the sixteenth president of the United States—never created a will. After his assassination in 1865, a son requested that Supreme Court Justice David Davis handle the estate. Two years after his death, $110,296 was divided among his wife and two sons.
Martin Luther King, Jr., 39
The Civil Rights leader had an estate worth about $250,000 when he was assassinated in 1968, but no will. More than 50 years after his death, his family is still fighting over his estate and his legacy. The fact that the estate included items of historic interest such as the briefcase Dr. King carried on his last trip; his Nobel Peace Prize; and his family Bible only complicated matters.
Pablo Picasso, 91
When he died in 1973, the famous artist left behind an estate worth between $100 million and $250 million; thousands upon thousands of paintings and other works of art … but no will. He also left behind multiple wives, mistresses, and children, all of whom fought over his estate for six years, racking up a $30 million legal bill.
Billie Holiday, 44
When legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday died without a will in 1959, it’s said that she had less than $1,000 to her name. She was estranged from her fourth husband, an alleged mafia enforcer, but they weren’t divorced—allowing him to inherit her entire estate, including royalties. Estimates about its value today vary, from over $1 million to as much as $14 million.
John Denver, 53
Singer John Denver didn’t have a will when his experimental plane crashed in 1997. His $19 million estate took six years to settle. Denver was single when he died without a will, and first ex-wife was named as the executor of his estate. She divided his assets equally between his three children — two from his first marriage, and one from his second.
Sam Cooke, 33
When Sam Cook was shot to death in 1964, he was worth about $2 million, and he didn’t have a will. He was also locked into a bad business deal that would go on to haunt his family long after his passing. His estate was worth an estimated $100 million in 2015, and in 2016, it was back in court again, when a granddaughter fought over her share.
Howard Hughes, 70
The one-time billionaire entrepreneur, engineer, investor, filmmaker, and philanthropist died in 1976 with an estate conservatively estimated to be worth $2.5 billion … yet despite having the acumen to accumulate such mind-boggling wealth, he never made a will. He had no immediate family, and claimants came out of the woodwork. After 34 years, the courts eventually named 200 of Hughes’ distant relatives among the reportedly thousand-some heirs — by which time the estate had grown considerably. Talk about an heir raid!
Barry White, 58
The soulful singer had a deep, velvet voice that women swooned over. He also had a will … but it hadn’t been updated in many years. When he died in 2003, he left behind an estate worth $20 million; two ex-wives; one long-term partner, and nine kids. Trouble is, he never divorced his second wife before moving in with another woman. His second wife inherited his estate—and then the lawsuits from his children and partner started flying.
Stieg Larsson, 50
The author of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series died in 2004 before achieving worldwide fame. He and his partner/writing collaborator had lived together in Sweden for 32 years. But because he died without a will, his estate—estimated between $20 million and $50 million—passed to his father and brother, from whom he was estranged. They granted her his apartment and some personal effects, but not the rights to the literary works she helped him with, or to the millions in royalties they continue to earn.
James Brown, 73
While the “godfather of soul” had a valid will when he passed in 2006, it took 15 years to settle the estate, valued at between $4.7 million and $100 million. Why? For one, it turns out his widow had never annulled a previous marriage, so the courts ruled she was never legally married to Brown. Adding to the complications were numerous lawsuits by his children, several estate administrators, and the aforementioned widow. Although the final figure was not disclosed, in 2021 it was announced that Brown’s wish to create a scholarship fund for underprivileged kids was finally honored.
Steve McNair, 36
The NFL quarterback was shot and killed by his mistress in 2009, leaving behind a wife and four children. To add insult to injury, it turned out he never created a will. His estate, estimated at around $19.6 million, was especially complicated because two of his children were with his wife and two were from a previous relationship. His family had to watch as sordid details of his private affairs were made public—including outstanding debts associated with a possible second mistress.
“DJ AM,” 36
In 2009, Adam Goldstein (a.k.a. “DJ AM”) died of a drug overdose. The hip-hop artist had no heirs, was not married, and died without a will. After debts, his estate was worth about $1 million. His mother was named the sole beneficiary. His family worked to set up at least one memorial fund to help recovering addicts, but just think what he could have done had he created a will and named one (or more) charities as beneficiaries.
Peter Brock, 61
The famous Australian rally racer was working on a will when he died in a 2006 crash, but hadn’t completed it. The will was declared invalid, and his entire estate—which some estimates placed at $3.3 million—went to his children, sparking a legal battle between his ex-wife, kids, and his live-in girlfriend.
Chadwick Boseman, 43
After a four-year battle with colon cancer, the Black Panther actor died in 2020. And in those four years, he still hadn’t created a will. That left his widow fighting for control of his $3.5 million estate. It was recently announced that the estate was split 50/50 between Boseman’s widow and his parents.
Robert Burns, 37
The 18th-century writer responsible for Auld Lang Syne died in 1796. He’s known as the national poet of Scotland, and his estate contributes about $100 million a year to that country’s economy. But he died intestate, deeply in debt, and left behind one widow and 12 children by four different women. His widow had to petition the courts to have herself appointed as administrator to divide up the meager estate, which included household items, horses, sheep, cattle, and corn. According to some stories, one illegitimate daughter, fathered with a maid, received only room, board, and washing for a year.
Tony Hseih, 46
The entrepreneur and former Zappos.com CEO died in a 2020 house fire, leaving behind an estate worth about $840 million, but he died without a will. His assets included nearly 100 Las Vegas properties. At one point, his friends and family tried to divide his estate using Post-It notes. Experts say that because Hsieh lived in Nevada, a community property state, his parents and two brothers are his next-of-kin — but if he’d had no family, the entire estate could have gone to his home state.
Stanley “Stan Lee” Lieber, 95
When the Marvel Comics legend died in 2018, his estate was worth $50 million. And while he may have created comic book heroes like Spider-Man and Iron Man, he never created any type of will — including one that could have protected him and his assets when he became incapacitated. In the years before his death, he filed a lawsuit against a company accused of tricking him into signing away the rights to his name and likeness. He also made claims of elder abuse and financial exploitation against a manager, and had a public fallout with his daughter, who eventually inherited the bulk of his fortune.
Kurt Cobain, 27
When Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, he was worth about $50 million, and he died without a will. His daughter was just 20 months old, and his wife, singer Courtney Love, was named the primary beneficiary of the publishing rights to his estate under Seattle law. She reportedly lost millions of his estate due to problems with drug abuse, as well as lawsuits and settlements— several with former Nirvana band members. His daughter, now 30, has reportedly also struggled with the financial windfall. Meanwhile, friends say Cobain planned to divorce Love and never wanted her to inherit his assets in the first place. Of course, if he’d made that clear in a will …
James Dean, 24
The Hollywood icon died in a car crash in 1955, leaving behind a $100,000 estate and no will. California law directed his assets pass to his closest surviving relative, his father. However, the young Rebel Without a Cause was raised by his aunt and uncle (his mother died when he was 9) and may have preferred his estate pass to them. Regardless, his estranged father established the James Dean Foundation Trust to capitalize on his son’s brand. As of 2021, it reportedly was bringing in about $5 million a year.
Heath Ledger, 28
The Dark Knight actor did have a will when he died of an overdose in 2008, but it hadn’t been updated since 2003. That meant his daughter and her mother weren’t included, and his $16.3 million estate passed to his parents and siblings. While his family has publicly stated that his lover and daughter will be taken care of, Ledger could have ensured that himself had he simply updated his will with his wishes.
Marvin Gaye, 44
When the Motown legend was shot and killed by his father in 1984, he not only died without a will, he apparently died about $9.2 million in debt. He left behind two ex-wives and three children. His song royalties, image rights, and the rights to his life story were used to pay off the debt as his albums continued to sell. California Probate Code dictated that his children would get equal shares of his estate, which increased in value over the years and got a big boost in 2015 when it was awarded $7.4 million in a copyright infringement suit.
Tupac Shakur, 25
The rapper and actor was shot and killed in 1996 while waiting in a car at a traffic light. He had no wife or children. Under California law, his estate — worth just $200,000 at the time — passed to his mother, Afeni Shakur. She was able to build it up to $40 million by the time of her death in 2016. In 1997, his estranged father unsuccessfully sued for half of the estate. And in January of this year, Tupac’s sister sued the executor of her mother’s estate, saying the man embezzled millions.
Nate Dogg, 41
When the rapper died without a will in 2011, he left behind six children from different relationships, a wife, one ex-wife, and an estate worth about $200,000 after debts. His children fought to move control of the estate from his widow and mother, saying they did not have the kids’ best interests at heart. The pair eventually gave up fighting the children and turned the estate, which is still growing because of royalties, over to a lawyer.
Even Diana Spencer, Princess Of Wales, Died Without a Will…
Although the beloved princess had a valid will when she died in a 1997 car crash, at some point she’d added a “letter of wishes” to bequeath her godchildren a quarter of her approximately $31.5 million estate. And that’s where things got complicated. Because the letter was not an official codicil, and did not include the proper legal language to make it valid, her mother and sister were allowed to overrule her wishes. Personal property items that should have gone to her sons, princes William and Harry, were instead put on public display and apparently even used for profit by her brother.
Dr. Diran Mikaelian, 85
Although not as rich and famous as the celebrities above, my dad died without a will in 2014. And he has one other thing in common with everyone on this list, too: He caused his family a lot of pain, stress, and sorrow by being unprepared. He always told me, “Don’t worry. I won’t die tomorrow.” But then he did just that. At the time, his wife—my mom—was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She needed round-the-clock care, but we didn’t have access to his assets to pay for it.
My wife and I spent a small fortune and the better part of a year sorting through his paperwork and getting his affairs in order. In the end, Dad’s lack of preparation drained a lot from the estate because of easily avoidable taxes and attorney’s fees. He never got a chance to remember his favorite nonprofits with a gift, or choose which loved ones got what.
Many Rich and Famous People Died without a Will… But You Don’t Have to!
Famous or not, don’t be like the people on this list. Make your will. Encourage your donors to make a will with our LegacyPlanner. And make sure to send out direct mail reminding them that August is National Make-A-Will Month.
Trust me, your loved ones (and your favorite nonprofits) will thank you.