Who’s cashing in, and who is cut out: celebrity wills and the family

 25 August 2022
Who’s cashing in, and who is cut out: celebrity wills and the family

It’s important to make a will to make your wishes for your estate clear, including leaving a lasting legacy for the next generation. However, many celebrities have chosen either not to pass on their wealth to their children or to make detailed arrangements for who gets what - and who gets nothing.

Cutting out the kids

Actor Sean Connery’s Bond films and numerous other roles netted him a fortune by the end of his life. However, he made it clear to his son before his death that there was no money in the will for him and he'll have to work for his own income.

The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman also made it clear that he did not want his children to become “trust fund kids” and left everything to his partner rather than his children.

Other celebrities who have reputedly not left their estate to their children include Elton John, singer songwriter Sting, and Sir Richard Branson. “Star Wars” creator George Lucas has said that his fortune will go towards improving education, whilst chef Gordon Ramsey has said that his children will receive a 25% deposit for their first flat, but that is it.

It's not just children who can be left out of wills. Amy Winehouse left her instructions in her will that her husband was not to be given any part of her £3million estate, and passed all her assets to her parents.

Spend, spend, spend

Many celebrities choose to spend most of their fortune during their lives, and numerous charities have benefitted to the tune of millions of pounds through their generosity.

Elton John and his husband aim to give away nearly all of the $300 million fortune to various charities they have set up between them.

Bill Gates and his ex-wife Melissa have donated millions through their joint foundation. As Gates explained in an interview:

“It’s not a favour to kids for them to have huge sums of wealth. It distorts anything they might do creating their own path.”

Others have decided to take a middle course, leaving some to their children and some to charity. Musicals composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has decided to leave the majority of his fortune to various arts foundations.

Celebrity wills that have cut out only part of the family include that of Hollywood star Joan Crawford. In her will she left trust funds of $77,500 to two of her four adopted children. The other two received nothing.

James Brown went one further leaving everything to underprivileged children and nothing to his own children or his wife.

Celebrities who died without leaving a will (intestate)

Reggae musician Bob Marley left no will, and this led to several claims on the estate. His wife Rita spent 10 years fighting for control of the estate in the courts, worth an estimated $30 million at the time.

Larger than life soul singer Barry White also died without making a will, resulting in his estranged wife and his current partner at the time going to court over the estate.

The singer Prince also died without a will, but since he had no children, his $300 million fortune was divided between his brothers and sisters.

Artist Pablo Picasso left no will or arrangements for the disposal of his estate worth $30million, which included over 45,000 items of artwork. It took six years to settle his estate.

Iconic actor James Dean died intestate and most of his estate passed to his estranged father.

Musician Jimi Hendrix died without leaving a will in 1970, and his entire estate passed to his father. After a protracted legal battle involving another son and a step-sister, the estate was finally settled in 2015, 45 years after the musician’s death.

And not who you expected

When John Lennon died, his will stipulated that his fortune pass to his wife Yoko Ono and their son Sean. Lennon’s son from his previous marriage, Julian, was not mentioned. However, Julian reportedly reached an out of court settlement for a share of the £220 million estate, but only after a 16-year legal battle.

Queen frontman Freddie Mercury did not leave his estate to his long-time partner but instead to his best friend, Mary Austin. His will included one specific request - to bury his cremated remains in a secret location, which has never been disclosed.

Singer Sony Bono died in a skiing incident leaving an estate worth millions of dollars. His ex-wife Cher submitted a claim against the estate for unpaid alimony, despite having a considerable fortune herself.

Singer George Michael left an estate worth £97million which was divided between his father, sisters and some close friends. However, a previous partner Kenny Goss made a claim for an allowance under the Inheritance (Provisions for Family and Dependents) Act 1975, as he claimed he was financially dependent on Michael.

Other celebrities have put aside significantly large amounts for the care of their pets once they pass. (See our recent blog on pets and wills).

William Shakespeare’s will

By the time he drew up his will a month before his death in 1616, Shakespeare had amassed considerable wealth. He left most of his estate to his eldest daughter, Susannah Hall. In a rather odd clause, he left his “second best bed” to his wife Anne Hathaway. Strange as this sounds to modern ears, it may be that the second-best bed was the one he and his wife actually slept in, with the best bed reserved for guests. (For more on the will, see this fascinating guide from the National Archives.)

Accidental generosity

After reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes died, relatives and lawyers were unable to find a bona fide will. This led to a decade of legal wrangles, as an article in The New York Times explained:

“It lasted 10 years, involved over a thousand players, generated countless headlines, a movie and millions in legal fees. It also brought forth a host of long-lost spouses, children and other relatives, plus assorted freeloaders and charlatans.”

Hughes’ fortune ultimately benefitted the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, but as the Attorney General of Delaware stated at the time:

“Howard Hughes, whatever he may have been, has left something of value to all American people, but I just don't think that was ever his intention.''

The bona vacantia list

Some estates go unclaimed for years as relatives cannot be traced. Such estates must be claimed by relatives within 30 years of the person’s death. The Unclaimed Estate list is known as the bona vacantia list. You can download the current list from here.

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