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The Presley Estate – A lesson in legacy and succession

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With its highs and lows over the years, the history of Elvis Presley’s estate serves as a great case study of the difficulties that can crop up when succession for maintaining a high-profile brand name is “kept in the family”, writes Debbie Sage, Attwood Marshall Lawyers Wills and Estates Senior Associate.

Introduction

Lisa Marie Presley was nine years old when her father, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, died in 1977. But it wasn’t until she turned 25 in 1993 that she was given sole control of Elvis’s estate, including Graceland, his 14-acre sprawling mansion home in Memphis, Tennessee.

Following the shock news earlier this month of Lisa Marie’s death after a heart attack, aged 54, that control is reportedly set to pass to her three daughters – 14-year-old twins Finley and Harper, whom she had with music producer Michael Lockwood (her spouse between 2006 and 2016), and 33-year-old Riley Keough from her marriage to musician Danny Keough between 1988 and 1994.

The intentions of her children are not yet known. Will they keep hold of and maintain their grandfather’s legacy as their mother did, or will they be tempted to sell it off? The estate may well be a complicated one to get to grips with, not least because of potential claims from creditors or litigation related to Presley’s significant debts and ongoing legal battles, including with her former business manager.

The Ups and Downs of the Elvis Legacy

Five months before his death in August 1977, Elvis Presley had named in his Will his grandmother Minnie Mae Presley, his father Vernon Presley, and his only daughter Lisa Marie as successors to his estate. Vernon, who was given the roles of executor and trustee, died two years later in 1979, and Elvis’s grandmother passed away in 1980. That left the entire estate to Lisa Marie, though she wouldn’t be able to take control of the assets until 1993, when she was 25 years old.

When he died, Elvis was reportedly only worth $5 million and straddled with significant debts. Yet by 1993 his estate’s value had shot up to $100 million. Vernon had named Lisa Marie’s mother, Priscilla his successor as the replacement executor and trustee of Elvis’ estate before his death, and it was she that ended up being so instrumental in turning around the Elvis legacy by the time her daughter would take the reins.

As executor, Priscilla helped form Elvis Presley Enterprises, which solidified Graceland as a tourist attraction and secured more income for the family from merchandising and image deals. The company also received royalties from any of Elvis’s songs that were recorded after 1973 (all his songs recorded before 1973 had been sold by his manager Colonel Tom Parker to record company RCA for $5.4 million, of which only $1.35 million went to Elvis).

When Lisa Marie came of age, she created a living trust and appointed a series of trustees to handle her fortune.

She was particularly attached to Graceland, which welcomes about 500,000 paying visitors each year and is the final resting place of Elvis, his parents, his grandmother and Lisa Marie’s son Benjamin Keough who committed suicide in 2020 at the age of 27. She told the press in the 2000s that the tourist attraction, which boasts a museum, restaurants, and a hotel, would be handed down to her daughters and never be sold.

But despite her good intentions – and a music career of her own with the release of three albums – by 2016 her divorce to Lockwood revealed that she was $16 million in debt.

According to the New York Post, Lisa Marie died owing about $1 million in taxes. More creditors may emerge in the coming months and years.

Inheriting legal battles or launching new ones to protect the brand name of the deceased is a common hurdle for successors to a large estate. While court disputes are likely not new for the Presley family – who for example had to take Colonel Tom Parker to court to block him from future estate dealings and put a pin in the famous 50 per cent fee arrangement he had with Elvis – they are more crippling and unfamiliar to others.

One outstanding lawsuit that Lisa Marie’s successors will need to decide whether to pursue or settle is her 2018 action against her former business manager Barry Siegel, who oversaw the sale of her stake in 85 per cent of Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2005. The suit alleges Siegel hid the true value of the Presley Trust and charged excessive annual fees. He has brought a countersuit, denying the allegations and claiming that Lisa Marie was a lavish spender and was well aware the funds were in dire straits.

Multiple divorces or children from different spouses also provide easy ammunition for messy estate administration. Lisa Marie had four former husbands, for example, including Michael Jackson and Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage.

Succession Planning With A Complex Estate

Dealing with the administration of a complicated, wealthy estate can be overwhelming. Although many people naturally appoint their next of kin to be the executor of their estate, not all family or friends are up to the task, especially in complex estate matters.

Overall, Lisa Maree did a fantastic job with the Presley estate. Her role as executor would have been an enormous feat, but one that became her own legacy and life’s work.

That may not be the case for everyone in a similar situation. Performing the role of executor in any sense can be onerous and there are many duties to fulfil which must be completed within a reasonable timeframe, no matter the size or complexity of the estate.

It can be particularly beneficial in complex estates to appoint a professional independent third party to be the executor or a co-executor of the estate to ensure the administration process is able to proceed smoothly. This is also constructive if litigation arises, and the executor must step in to defend the estate.

Attwood Marshall Lawyers – Leading Wills & Estates Law Firm

Whether you have inherited an estate and need help dealing with the assets and liabilities or are in need of legal advice for your own estate planning to ensure your legacy is passed on as you wish – no matter the intricacy of the assets and arrangements involved, we can help.

Attwood Marshall Lawyers have one of the largest most experienced Wills and Estates department in Australia. Our lawyers practice exclusively in estate planning and estate administration and understand the complex nature of Succession Law.

We can act as the executor in an estate or assist with administering deceased estates to ensure the process is seamless and to help carry some of the burden that is often put-upon executors.

To discuss our estate planning or estate administration services, please contact our Wills and Estates Department Manager, Donna Tolley, or on direct line 07 5506 8241, email dtolley@attwoodmarshall.com.au or free call 1800 621 071 any time.

You can visit our experienced team at any of our conveniently located offices at Robina Town Centre, Coolangatta, Kingscliff, Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne.

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Debbie Sage is a Partner and Accredited Aged Care Professional in the Wills and Estates Department. Her primary focus is in matters related to estate administration.

Debbie Sage

Partner
Wills & Estates

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Disclaimer
The contents of this article are considered accurate as at the date of publication. The information contained in this article does not constitute legal advice and is of a general nature only. Readers should seek legal advice about their specific circumstances. 

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