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Famous Celebrity Estate Disputes: Mistakes to Avoid When Estate Planning

Malm & LaFave, S.C. July 20, 2023

Despite the fame and fortune, even celebrities are not immune to the potential conflict that arises from estate planning mistakes. This blog post will explore captivating cases of celebrity estate disputes that continued long after the final curtain call and the lessons we can learn from them.

Chadwick Boseman

At the time of his death in 2020, the famous “Black Panther” star, Chadwick Boseman, did not have a will. Because of this, his family was forced to go through a costly probate process to determine who would inherit his estate. Boseman’s wife, Taylor Simone Ledward, was appointed personal representative and proposed his estate be split evenly between herself and Boseman’s parents. After two long years, the court granted her request. However, without a will or trust, the family lost almost a third of Boseman’s estate to legal fees and taxes. Many estates that go through the probate process, especially expensive celebrity estates, are met with extensive family disputes, unexpected creditors filing claims, expensive legal fees, and relentless publicity as the contents of the estate become public. Having updated estate planning documents can avoid this painful and expensive process. 


Despite being a singing sensation with an estate worth $156 million, Prince died without a will. According to intestate laws in Minnesota, his six half-siblings were deemed the heirs-at-law. Unfortunately, they could not agree on a distribution agreement, thus leading to an arduous 6-year-long battle over his estate. In August 2022, the court ruled his estate was to be split equally between Prince Legacy LLC and Prince OAT Holdings LLC after expenses were paid. However, the estate is still not closed because the IRS has not given tax clearance yet. This has left the door open for unexpected “creditors” to file claims in the estate insisting they are an heir, or even Prince himself wrongfully declared deceased. This lengthy, publicized estate dispute could have been avoided by simply drafting a will. 

Frank Sinatra

After his death in May 1998, Frank Sinatra’s will was filed for probate in the Los Angeles Superior Court. The document left a portion of his monetary and material wealth to his loved ones, including various houses across California, personal property, sheet music, master recordings, marketing rights to his name, and specific cash bequests. The rest of his assets were preserved in a trust.

Sinatra also famously included a no-contest clause in his will, meaning anyone who contested the will’s provisions would automatically be disinherited. Though it seems like a clever provision, it violates an heir-at-law’s right to file a claim in an estate, and it can be overruled in some cases. Instead, it can be beneficial to communicate with loved ones regarding their inheritance in an effort to prevent any potential disagreements among beneficiaries.

Robin Williams:

At the time of his death, the beloved actor had an extensive estate plan detailing his final wishes, including an updated will, various trusts, and a prenuptial agreement with his wife, Susan Schneider Williams. His estate plan left the almost $100 million estate, including jewelry, clothing, personal photos, memorabilia, and awards from his extensive entertainment career to his three children. His Californian house was left to his wife, Susan, along with the rest of its contents excluding the items specifically left to his children. Seems straightforward, right?

Unfortunately, much of the language in the estate planning documents that detailed which items were to be given to his children was not clearly defined. This prompted Susan to file a petition with the court to dispute the documents. The three children filed objections to Susan’s petition, and an arduous court battle ensued. In the end, the parties reached a settlement agreement. This case shows the importance of including specific language in estate planning documents to ensure all your wishes are fulfilled.

Lessons to Be Learned

Planning for death can be a difficult conversation that even the most famous celebrities try to avoid. Unfortunately, the unexpected can happen to anyone, and there are many lessons that can be taken from these famous estate disputes.

  1. Be specific. Even if you have the proper estate planning documents, it is still important to be as specific as possible when detailing your wishes, beneficiary designations, and conditions for your assets. This prevents any misinterpretation of your requests that could lead to lengthy court disputes.

  2. Wills are important. Having an updated will helps avoid the need for the court to determine intestate succession. This process makes the contents of your estate public knowledge and can be very expensive.

  3. Communicate with loved ones regarding the reasoning behind your beneficiary designations. These intimate conversations help ensure your wishes are met and decrease the potential for future family conflict.

  4. Have a plan for your smaller, sentimental items, not just large property. These items can sometimes get overlooked in the estate planning documents despite their sentimental value. Without specific beneficiary designations, smaller items can become the topic of family disputes just as much as large monetary assets.

Even if you are not a famous singer or movie star, there are still countless benefits to having estate planning documents. To begin drafting your documents, update an existing plan, or simply ask a question, contact our office today at 414-228-5250. Our experienced attorneys look forward to assisting you!