Blog Author: Tereina Stidd, J.D., LL.M. (Tax), Associate Director of Education,
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
Full disclosure – Elvis Presley died the year that I was born yet I feel like I grew up with his music. He was dubbed the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll because of his undeniable musical talent and by all accounts he was a humble, kind, and generous man who died far too young. It’s ironic that as Elvis’s life and career returned to the spotlight, his only daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, died. Lisa Marie died earlier this year from cardiac arrest at the age of 54 and left behind a tragic legacy, rivaling that of her famous father. Elvis died when Lisa Marie was just 9 years old leaving his entire estate, including his famous home, Graceland, to her. The estate was held in trust for Lisa until she attained the age of 25 in 1993. In 2004, Lisa sold 85% of Elvis Presley Enterprises for over $100 million and transferred the remaining 15% to the Promenade Trust.
Lisa Marie’s mother, Priscilla Presley, and former business manager, Barry Siegel, served as co-Trustees of the Promenade Trust for many years. Just weeks after her daughter’s death, Priscilla filed a petition challenging Lisa Marie’s Will and the “authenticity and validity” of a 2016 document. The 2016 document purports to remove Priscilla and Barry as co-Trustees of the Promenade Trust and replace them with Lisa’s daughter, Riley Keough, and Lisa’s predeceased son, Benjamin Keough, upon Lisa Marie’s death. Priscilla alleges that she never received the document changing the trustees, as required by the terms of the Promenade Trust. In addition, Priscilla’s petition alleges that the amendment misspelled Priscilla’s name and contains a signature that was inconsistent with Lisa Marie’s “usual and customary” signature. Finally, the document was neither witnessed nor notarized and the signature page was void of any substantive provisions of the document, which is customary.
While this case is fascinating on many levels, it’s instructive as well. The case contains several important lessons for Estate Planning attorneys and their clients regarding what an Estate Plan needs to do to protect the decedent and their loved ones. What lessons should we take from Lisa Marie? First, if privacy is important, consider using a Revocable Trust, rather than a Will, to control disposition of your estate. In most states, if the decedent used a Will to govern distribution of their estate, then the Will needs to be submitted to the court and go through a public process called probate. Usually, the probate process requires the involvement of an attorney and does not protect the privacy of the decedent, their wishes, or their loved ones. A Revocable Trust avoids probate by allowing a successor trustee to step into the shoes of the decedent trustee who is usually the trustor or grantor of the Trust and administer the Trust without court intervention or oversight.
Second, whenever you amend a Trust or exercise a power granted to you in a Trust or any other legal document, it’s vital to follow the terms of the instrument granting the power precisely. In Lisa Marie’s case, the Promenade Trust required that notice of the amendment be given to the then-acting trustees. Priscilla alleges that she never received that notice. While notice may seem trivial, it’s not. Lisa Marie’s failure to provide the required notice has led to grandmother, Priscilla, suing her granddaughter, Riley. It’s all the more heartbreaking when you consider that Lisa Marie died just a few weeks ago and the lawsuit has already been filed. It seems that the new trustees were to take over upon Lisa Marie’s death, but even that’s a bit unclear because the amendment names a now-deceased individual to serve as trustee.
This highlights the next lesson: review your plan regularly to ensure that it’s up-to-date. The amendment was purportedly executed in 2016 and named Riley and Benjamin to serve as trustees of the Promenade Trust. Benjamin died in 2020 and Lisa never updated the amendment to the trust. Had she done that, it would have allowed her to review and correct any deficiencies in the 2016 amendment. That didn’t happen and now Lisa Marie’s estate along with the Promenade Trust will end up in litigation for an unknown amount of time. Litigation will stall ultimate distribution of Lisa Marie’s estate and the Promenade Trust, cost thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in attorneys’ fees, will be public, and will likely cause irreparable harm to the family.
Finally, consider inserting a no-contest or “in terrorem” clause in your Estate Plan. Estate Planning attorneys often include an “in terrorem” or no contest clause to further evidence the testator or grantor’s intent. The use of an in terrorem clause in a Will or Trust protects the intentions of the testator or grantor from attack by a disgruntled beneficiary by completely disinheriting the beneficiary who challenges the terms of a Will or Trust. These clauses do not work the same in every state and some states impose additional requirements before disinheriting the beneficiary. It may not have mattered in this case because it seems that Priscilla is not listed as a beneficiary, but in many cases it prevents litigation.
While fascinating, it’s unfortunate, that this matter will play out on a public stage. The family is no stranger to the press, lawsuits, and negative publicity. Typically, when intrafamily litigation ensues, only the lawyers benefit. Litigation takes time and costs money during periods of significant grief. Lisa Marie’s case is even more distressing because she left behind two minor daughters. These public feuds provide great lessons for Trust and Estate attorneys willing to learn them and implement safeguards against them but at a high cost to the families involved.
Litherland, Kennedy & Associates, APC, Attorneys at Law are members of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys. If you would like to learn more about the importance of estate planning, we invite you to attend one of our free estate planning workshops. In addition to offering free estate planning webinars and in-person workshops, we offer in-person, Zoom and phone consultations.