The death of a celebrity is a devastating occurrence. Not only do they leave behind their family and friends, but thousands of heartbroken fans. Many of these people turn up to their lavish funerals to pay their respects to the fallen idol. Of course, many famous people leave behind sizable estates worth millions of dollars. Generally, they have their legal ducks in a row, leaving behind a Last Will and Testament that determines how their assets should be divided.
But what happens when a celebrity doesn’t have a will? Legal battles and lawsuits often follow the death of a person who died in intestacy (the legal term for dying without a will). And when celebrities pass away, these are often highly-publicized affairs that can even tarnish the name of the late star. Whether they never made a will due to young age, improper estate preparation, or even religious reasons, the death of an intestate celebrity is always a complicated event. If you are interested in some of the stories surrounding these affairs, read on to learn about Twenty Celebrities Who Died Without a Will.
Often hailed as one of the most influential rappers of all time, Tupac Shakur sold over 75 million records during his time in the music game. He was a fantastic lyricist, usually writing about gang life and other realities of growing up in Harlem. Tupac died violently, in a likely-gang-related shooting that occurred in Las Vegas in 1996. He was hanging out with Suge Knight, and they had just attended a boxing match at the MGM Grand. They decided to hit up Club 662 (owned by Tupac’s record company). At the Club, a car pulled up and somebody inside shot Tupac four times – killing the prolific artist.
He died intestate, and his estate was transferred to his mother. However, suspicious debts and other financial issues soon came to light. For example, he owed millions of dollars to his record company (even though he had just signed a 3-year contract before his death). It is possible that he really was in a bad financial situation, perhaps due to his own love for an elaborate lifestyle. However, his mother continued to collect royalties from his estate.
Prince was a famous singer-songwriter from Minnesota. He is known for his eclectic music, and his flamboyant and extravagant stage presence. Of course, he was also a fantastic musician and lyricist. His second album Prince went Platinum in 1979. He wrote songs in a variety of genres, including funk, new wave, soul, pop, and jazz. The famous musician had, like many other musicians, a problem with drugs. In 2016, he died of a fentanyl overdose in his Minnesota home. While it is uncertain whether he obtained the drug through a valid prescription or illegally, he was set to start treatment for the opioids that killed him the very same day that he died. He ended up leaving behind millions of dollars in assets, with no will to determine how they should be separated. This first came to light after his sister filed certain documents ascertaining that the entertainer never wrote a will. The probate courts must determine the best course of action regarding his sizeable estate.
The author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the rest of the Millenium series, reached international prominence before his untimely death. In fact, he was the second best-selling author in the world in 2008 – and the top-selling author in the United States in 2010. Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004, which was mostly attributable to his poor diet and excessive caffeine intake. However, he died without a formal or officially-recognized will – leaving his heirs in an unfortunate situation.
Though Larsson had filed a will in 1977, leaving his assets to the Swedish Socialist Party, it was never witnessed and thus was declared invalid in Swedish courts. Instead, his assets and future royalties were given to his father and brother, much to the chagrin of his long-time girlfriend Eva Gabrielsson. It is worth mentioning that Larsson and Gabrielsson never married. If they had, she would have received at least a part of Larsson’s sizeable estate. They avoided marriage to keep a low-profile – Larsson’s frequent reports on extremist groups and the subsequent death threats were a danger to a married couple (in Sweden, they must publicly announce a married couple’s address.
Without a doubt one of the most legendary guitar players of all time, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Woodstock alum Jimi Hendrix made a significant impact on the future of rock music. Combining different styles and effects, this artist created a brand-new method of playing the guitar that was frequently emulated by the most successful groups of later eras. Jimi Hendrix spent his final day on Earth in London, in the company of Monika Danneman. He ended up spending the evening with her, staying up very late and enjoying her company. However, the next morning Danneman found that he had asphyxiated on his vomit due to overdosing on barbiturates.
Intestacy laws left Hendrix’s estate to his father, Al Hendrix. Though he was a relatively drama-free administrator of the estate, after his death in 2002 he left the estate to his adopted daughter Janie – instead of his blood son Leon. This naturally caused a lot of friction, which was followed up by Leon’s business partner Andrew Pitsicalis illegally using Jimi’s signature and other copyrighted images. Janie Hendrix sued Pitsicalis, starting a six-year legal battle over rights to Jimi’s signature and likeness. They eventually won, achieving a permanent injunction against Pitsicalis. This occurred in 2010 – 45 years after the untimely death of Jimi Hendrix.
Titular member of Sonny & Cher, this singer and politician found a lot of success throughout his life. He was elected mayor of Palm Springs, California in 1988. He maintained this position until 1992 – but his political aspirations weren’t over yet. He served as a congressman for California in the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to his death in 1998. Sonny Bono met his early end in a skiing accident at Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California. His death occurred only a week after another celebrity, Michael Kennedy, died in a similar accident. He left behind loads of fans and constituents (though his wife ended up filling the spot that Bono left behind in congress).
However, Bono’s lack of a will caused Mary Bono a lot of problems. She spent years battling lawsuits, such as a claim from Cher herself that Sonny Bono owed her millions in unpaid alimony and child support. Plus, a man named Sean Machu turned up that claimed to be his illegitimate son. He eventually retracted his lawsuit after a DNA test was requested.
This man was the father of modern reggae, and largely responsible for bringing the Jamaican and Rastafari cultures into the public eye. He began his musical career with Bob Marley and the Wailers, blending reggae, ska, and rocksteady into a distinct style of his own. He found a lot of success – his greatest hits album Legend became the best-selling reggae album of all time. Marley died from a malignant series of tumors that was first discovered in 1977. Doctors initially found the cancer in his toe, and recommended amputation. However, Marley cited religious beliefs and denied the amputation. Just three years later, the cancer had spread to the rest of his body. He was on a layover in Miami, on his way back to Jamaica, when the cancer killed him in a Miami hospital.
Bob Marley didn’t leave behind a will because his Rastafari beliefs prevented him from acknowledging death in such a direct manner. Plenty of legal battles followed his intestacy, with his family fighting to even use Bob’s likeness in public. Plus, the bank that held his estate sued his accountant and widow, claiming that they were embezzling money from the estate. It is possible that Rita Marley forged some signatures to improve her own financial standing.
Grunge owes a lot to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Often called the “flagship band of Generation X”, Nirvana pioneered the grunge movement in America. They were highly successful throughout their somewhat short-lived musical career, but it couldn’t help Kurt Cobain. The musician had always struggled with a deadly combination of narcotic dependence and mental illness. Eventually, he was overcome by his depression and committed suicide with a shotgun round to the head. He left behind a suicide note, but not a Last Will and Testament.
Due to intestacy laws, his wife Courtney Love become the administrator of his estate. However, it is worth noting that he may have been in the process of starting a divorce from Love. He just never got to it before he ended his life. Love handled his estate poorly, and was involved in a lot of lawsuits that she raised against several important figures in Cobain’s life. Eventually, her attitude caused her to become estranged from her daughter Frances Cobain, who gained a portion of the estate.
Prominent English singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse was known for her unique voice and diverse mix of musical styles. In fact, her very first album ended up being a huge success. Amy Winehouse even won five Grammy awards in a single night in 2008. Though she had professional success, she had always had problems with substance abuse. It was alcohol that brought her to her demise. She died from a combination of bulimia and alcohol poisoning in her Camden, London home in 2011.
She didn’t leave behind a will. At first, the public was concerned that some of her estate would go to her ex-husband – felon and heroin addict Blake Fielder-Civil. However, these concerns were quickly alleviated when it was determined that her parents would retain full rights to her estate.
The trope of the eccentric billionaire probably has a lot to do with Howard Hughes. He began as a producer in Hollywood in the late 1920s, but greatly diversified his business interests across many realms. He even formed an aircraft company that built some planes that broke airspeed world records. He was known for his odd behaviors and mannerisms, much of which may be attributable to obsessive compulsive disorder. Hughes passed away on an aircraft in 1976. He was on his way to Houston when his kidneys underwent major failure, which was possibly related to his IV codeine use. He was generally in poor health, and had even broken off five hypodermic needles in his arm. Hughes didn’t have a will despite his old age, so his estate went through the process of intestacy.
At first, it seemed as if the so-called “Mormon Will” would clear things up for the Hughes estate. It was apparently found on the desk of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints official, and left a lot of money to various charities, upper-level management members, his first cousin William Lummis, and some to be split between his ex-wives. This will was eventually declared a forgery. The final decision on Hughes estate was to split it among his 22 cousins. The estate also paid some money to Terry Moore, who claimed that she and Hughes had gotten married on a yacht in 1949 and were never officially divorced. She never produced any proof, but the settlement from the estate might lend her claims some merit.
18th-century poet Robert Burns is now known as the national poet of Scotland. He wrote many famous poems and interpretations of songs, such as “Auld Lang Syne”. He also pioneered the Romantic movement in writing, influencing the development of liberalism and socialism greatly. The Scottish cultural icon died in 1796 under uncertain circumstances. He was 37 years old at the time, and may have aggravated a heart condition with his use of alcohol. However, the cause of his death could not be clearly determined with 1700s medical methods.
Robert Burns thus left his widow to manage his affairs, and she had to go through the courts to have herself appointed as administrator of his estate. He didn’t leave behind a lot – and his daughter that he had out of wedlock with his mother’s maid received the worst of it. She got nothing more than room, board, and washing for a year.
Martin Luther King Jr.
The civil rights movement might never have succeeded without the efforts of Martin Luther King Junior. He led the Montgomery bus boycott, organized the March on Washington in 1963 (where he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech), and even won a Nobel Peace prize. He was greatly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent activism, applying many of the same principles to civil disobedience in the United States. Among certain groups, King’s actions won him no favor. It was on a 1968 trip to Memphis, which he had taken to support an employee strike, that King was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel. He was standing on the second-floor balcony when James Earl Ray killed the 39-year-old with a sniper rifle.
While he was out busy fighting the war for civil rights, he neglected his estate preparations and died without a will. This marred his legacy a bit, as it caused a lot of infighting between his children. Though his heirs eventually formed a corporation to deal with his assets, they fought for control over that too (though they eventually reached a settlement). Plus, a lawsuit was brought against reporter Howard Nelson Ballou by the estate when he released previously-unknown handwritten letters that King had given to his mother. This charge was dismissed on a statute of limitations technicality.
The 16th president of the United States, the speaker of the Gettysburg Address, and paver of the path to abolition, Abraham Lincoln has a great legacy as commander-in-chief. He strengthened the government and modernized the economy, and led the States through its Civil War. As many people know, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Boothe while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre. The actor snuck up on Lincoln and shot him point blank in the back of the head – only five days after Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army surrendered, effectively ending the Civil War. Lincoln went into a 9 hour coma, and passed away the next day.
Though Lincoln died intestate, it was not the worst case of a man dying without a will. The estate was soon administered by Supreme Court Justice David Davis, after only about three years in court. No legal battles to speak of tarnished the reputation of this great president.
Marvin Gaye, pioneer of Motown music, is one of the more influential musicians of our time. He released many songs throughout the years, each with his own personal style and edge that set his music apart from the rest. He even won a Grammy for his performances. He was eventually shot to death by his own father. It seems that Marvin Gay Sr. and Gaye’s mother had been involved in some sort of fight, in which Gaye got involved. Only a few minutes afterward, his father came into his room and shot him in the heart and the left shoulder. In court, it came to light that Gay Sr. was suffering from a brain tumor and had drugs in his system, so his charge was lowered to voluntary manslaughter.
Gaye died without a will, but his estate passed to his children without too much ado. However, in 2013 they did have to get involved in a lawsuit. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ song “Blurred Lines” drew heavily upon “Got to Give it Up” by Marvin Gaye, a clear case for copyright infringement. The estate ended up winning a few million in a subsequent settlement.
This rapper began is career in the California rap trio 213. He appeared in this group alongside Warren G and Snoop Dogg. During his career, he pioneered West Coast hip hop, partnering up with big names like Dr. Dre, Eminem, Tupac, 50 Cent, and many others. Unfortunately, Nate Dogg’s health wasn’t the best it could have been. He suffered several strokes, with the first in 2007 leaving him temporarily paralyzed. He suffered another in 2008, and finally another in 2011 that proved fatal. He died at the age of 41.
His lack of a will was the source of a lot of friction between his wife, mother, and children. Initially, his widow Latoya Calvin took over his estate, and eventually gave partial control to his mother (Ruth Holmes). However, his daughter Aundrane Hale was quite against this decision, stating that Calvin never even attended Nate’s funeral, and that Ruth was “never a grandmother”.
Billie Holiday was an incredibly influential jazz and pop singer, known mostly for her vocal talent and great improvisation skills. Her style allowed her to easily overcome her limited range and lack of formal education, leading the musician to four Grammys throughout her career. Holiday always had problems with alcohol. In 1959, she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and told to stop drinking. However, she relapsed that same year, causing her to suffer from pulmonary edema and heart failure related to her liver problems. She died with very little to her name – the modern-day equivalent of about $6300.
Without a will, her estate and future royalties were left to her husband Louis McKay. He was a Mafia enforcer, and an abusive husband. They had been estranged at the time of her death, but not divorced – so, by intestacy laws, he gained control of the estate. The McKay family has retained her estate since.
He was one of the most prominent folk musicians of our time. John Denver began writing folk during the late 60s, and recorded and released about 300 songs over the course of his career – 200 of which he wrote himself. He has sold 33 million records worldwide, appeared on films and television, and even went before Congress to protest against censorship in music. Denver was also an avid pilot, which proved to be his downfall. He crashed his experimental plane in 1997 – which he was not technically supposed to be flying – when he was unable to switch fuel tanks to allow the engines to keep running. Much of the fault lies with the plane’s design, as the switch and gauges were hard for the pilot to access.
The musician also died intestate, causing a lot of problems for his heirs. His assets were divided between his three children, but the IRS eventually claimed that millions in taxes were owed by the estate. Though his estate was worth far more, it was just a headache for everyone involved.
Most people have heard of Pablo Picasso. He was the inventor of constructed sculpture, the co-inventor of the collage, and the co-founder of the Cubist movement. His artistic talent and direction led him to explore many new styles, leading him to prominence in the world of 20th century artists. Picasso passed during a dinner party that he was hosting with his wife. He died of heart failure in 1973, leaving behind a wife, kids, and grandkids. His wife killed herself some time later due to loneliness and the struggle she faced without Picasso by her side.
As he had no will, his wife ended up taking control of the estate. However, she cut out his kids and grandkids until she ended her life. But that wasn’t the end of the fighting – Picasso’s descendants continued to fight over the rights to his name and signature. Most notable was a disagreement on using his name to brand a Citroën car.
Steve McNair was an NFL player who was a quarterback for the Oilers, Titans, and Ravens during his time in the game. He was a great player, and even won the Walter Payton Award in 1994 for being the top player in his college division. He went to the Super Bowl once, and played in the Pro Bowl three times. McNair’s taste for extramarital affairs is what eventually got him killed. His girlfriend Sahel Kazemi shot him twice in the body and twice in the head in one of his condominiums that they had been staying at together. She also killed herself, turning the homicide into a brutal murder-suicide.
Because he had not left behind a will, his assets were frozen for some time. Eventually, some of the assets were released to his children. His four kids each received $500,000 to ensure the best possible quality of life for them in the future.
This singer is best known for his baritone voice and romantic image. He has created so many enduring classics throughout his time – which is not surprising, considering that he has released 106 albums that went Gold, and 41 of those went Platinum. He is one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time. Barry White had been overweight for most of his life, and suffered from related problems. In 2003, he suffered a stroke. Later that year, he died of complications in the hospital. He was cremated, and his remains were scattered off of the California coast.
While Barry White technically had a will, it was incredibly out of date. He had been separated from his second wife Glodean James for many years, but never officially divorced her or updated his will. Therefore, she received all of his assets while his long-term girlfriend Katherine Denton never received a penny. She tried to get some of the estate when she gave birth to what she presumed was Barry’s child, but subsequent paternity testing showed that it was not – suggesting that she had cheated on Barry White anyhow.
Peter Brock was a well-known Australian motorist. He won more than 20 huge races throughout his career, including the Bathurst 1000, the Sandown 500, and the Bathurst 24 Hour races in Australia. He also had business interests with his favorite manufacturer, Holden. Brock died in 2006 during the Targa West ’06 rally. He accidentally skidded off of a downhill left turn, smashing into a tree and dying instantly. The footage of the crash was never released to the public, but it was determined that high speed was the cause of his fatal mistake.
He actually had three wills written up – but none of them were valid at the time of his death. The only official will that he had was from 1984. The second, from 2003, was signed but not witnessed, rendering it invalid. The third was from 2006 and was never even signed. Therefore, Australian courts decided to distribute his estate through the intestacy process. Luckily, it wasn’t a huge problem as his biological children Rob and Alexandra received their shares, and divided it equally with their stepbrother James.