106: What’s Left of the Presley Estate? Lessons Learned from Elvis & Lisa Marie

Ever since the mid-’50s, when “That’s Alright Mama” hit the airwaves and marked his rise to stardom, Elvis Presley has been lauded as one of the most galvanizing figures in the history of popular music. He became a household name as quickly as anyone ever had in his pre-social media time and would go on to have an incredible 149 songs make the Billboard Top 100 Pop Chart. He would also become the ultimate Las Vegas fixture — the prototype creator of what is now known today as the “Las Vegas Residency.”

Sold-out concerts, hit songs, packed theatres. Elvis generated a LOT of money. And, if you’d conclude that Elvis’s own share of this revenue led to a lavish lifestyle that very few other entertainers matched before or since, you would, of course, be right. But we’re also familiar with the cautionary tale that came with Elvis’s fame and fortune. When he died in 1977, he left behind an estate valued at around $5 million — a surprisingly small sum, considering his accomplishments.

With Lisa Marie Presley’s recent unfortunate and untimely death, the Presley estate is back in the news. A closer examination of this estate will reveal that fueled by a series of interesting planning decisions over the years since Elvis’s death — some very questionable, but a few surprisingly wise — it has gone through a series of dramatic twists and turns that, in a way seem befitting of such a storied and larger than life public figure.

But this financial saga holds far more than the unfortunate tabloid “car crash” appeal that seemed to follow the Presley name after his passing. There are also plenty of teachable moments included in this story! Join us for the latest episode of Absolute Trust Talk as Kirsten Howe and associate attorney, Madison Gunn, examine the Presley approach to estate planning over the years and detail the various decisions that have led to its current state.

In this episode, we’re going to discuss:

  • Elvis’s seemingly unusual method for organizing his estate
  • The broad language contained in his testamentary trust that showed Elvis’s concern for his family
  • The tremendous amount of latitude that Vernon Presley — Elvis’s father and his original trustee — was given. This latitude would lead to a dramatic change upon Vernon’s own death
  • Just how dramatically the new trustee’s wise moves reversed the Presley estate’s seemingly bleak future.
  • Why, considering her state in life, coming into control of a vast fortune created a terrible situation for Lisa Marie
  • How, in the days after Lisa Marie’s death, poor planning and questionable motives combined to create a plethora of litigation

And more.

Don’t miss this latest episode of Absolute Trust Talk as Kirsten and Madison chronicle the history of this estate, and share some legal wisdom that could have significantly alleviated the conflicts and fluctuations it has seen over the years. We hope you’ll walk away with insights on what you should or shouldn’t do in your own estate planning.

Big Three from Episode #106:

  1. Considering the estate laws of his native state of Tennessee, the way Elvis organized his estate didn’t come totally out of left field — as we’ve pointed out on this podcast before, there have been plenty of celebrities that left their estates in total disarray. In contrast, Elvis had good intentions while planning for the future of his heirs. However, the unusually broad wording in his trust led to an unfortunate chain of events that would dramatically erode the value of that estate.
  2. While the unusual amount of latitude that Vernon Presley was given would chart the course for the Presley estate’s financial freefall, in naming a surprisingly savvy trio of successor heirs, Vernon also unwittingly set the stage for the estate’s eventual turnaround.
  3. Just as you might expect, things didn’t go well when Lisa Marie Presley turned 25 and came into control of the family fortune. She was not on good terms with her mother, had a deep rebellious streak, and kept company with people who didn’t have her best interests at heart, putting her in a situation that was eerily similar to that of her father’s and led her to spend away the $100 million estate.

Time-stamped Show Notes:

0:00 Introduction

2:17 What triggered the latest chapter of discord in the Presley family was Priscilla challenging an amendment to Lisa’s trust.

3:45 Lisa Marie’s own story begins with her famous father. But, first, let’s hear Kirsten explain how Elvis’s estate planning history figures into this story.

4:06 Elvis handled his estate planning differently than what we would recommend. He only had a will that established a testamentary trust after his death.

6:10 In addition to his three beneficiaries, Elvis allowed his trustee the discretion to provide funds to other relatives in need of emergency assistance – a very odd and broad addition.

7:33 If a client were to come to us today with this request, we would recommend that the language be much more specific – defining what an “emergency” might be.

8:53 Elvis had so many people around him that, unfortunately, we’re probably just there for his money, so open-ended trust language wasn’t the best idea.

9:41 Vernon — Elvis’s father and trustee — died not long after Elvis, as did his grandmother. And oddly enough, Vernon appointed trustees to replace himself.

12:15 If there is some change of trustee, the first thing that should be done is a reading of the document to figure out what you’re allowed to do.

12:37 Another unusual deviation Elvis made in his planning was that he chose his father as trustee. Usually, you want to go younger.

13:07 Vernon’s successor trustees made great moves to put the trust back into the black. Here’s what they did.

14:57 Elvis’s trust was set to terminate when Lisa Marie turned 25, leaving her with ~$100 million asset. Yikes!

16:10 Lisa Marie, unfortunately, spent the money, sold 85% of the company, and then spent that – losing almost all of the estate.

17:26 Now, let’s get to Lisa Marie and her estate. At the time of her death, her estate was in debt of $4 million.

18:51 In 2016, Lisa Marie allegedly changed the trustees to her adult children, Riley and Benjamin Keo. Priscilla is now arguing that it is not valid.

20:32 In 2018, Lisa Marie sued business manager Barry Siegel, and at the time, he was still named as a co-trustee with Priscilla, which indicates that she might not have changed the trustees.

22:00 There are a few cases being heard that strongly correspond to Presley’s odyssey regarding trust amendments.

24:45 While they aren’t litigators, Kirsten and Madison look closely at these cases because the two different rulings are important drafting points.

27:06 Wondering why a properly written trust is so lengthy? The phrasing is there for a reason: to keep your family out of court!

28:20 You’ll probably be surprised at how minimal a part Elvis’s music plays in the estate. Elvis didn’t own the music, so neither did Lisa Marie.

29:41 Misunderstandings and deception surrounding music rights are still causing conflict in the industry. Another great example is Taylor Swift. She rerecorded her first album.

30:21 Here’s some Elvis trivia that might interest you while also underscoring just how pivotal a figure he was.

Resources/Links Mentioned in this Episode:

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