Over the last few decades there have been a number of famous disputes over wills and estates that have graced our newspapers and in more recent times our newsfeeds. The Will & Estates Dispute team here at Gorvins have put their minds together to discuss the top 10 famous will disputes. Most of the time the dispute comes from disgruntled family members who may have been given less than what they deemed their fair share or even left out of the will altogether. Other times long-lost family members resurface and try and stake a claim on a part of the estate.

We have written posts in the past which tackle more of the legalities surrounding will and estate challenges such as ‘Can I challenge an unfair will?’ and ‘When and who can challenge a will’. These posts look at the facts and technicalities with the aim to inform, so if you’d like to learn more about disputes of this nature, we suggest you take a look at these posts or give us a call.

But for now let’s take a look at some of the more interesting will disputes that the world has seen.

  1. Michael Jackson – King of Pop

Since the death of the King of Pop in June 2009, his family have been embroiled in a plethora of legal and financial disputes. The people feeling upset are his siblings, who were left out of the will. Some of the siblings joined together to write and sign a letter claiming the will to be fake. In 2012 they asked the executors of the estate to resign, however one of the signatories, Jermaine Jackson, later retracted his signature.

There was also a lot of arguing over the custody of Jackson’s three children: Prince, Paris and Blanket. Their grandmother, and Michael’s mum, was named legal guardian, but briefly lost her guardianship when she went missing for a short period of time in August 2012. After a bit of mishap she was later reinstated as guardian.

  1. Nelson Mandela – Former South African President

When Mandela died at the age of 95, he left nothing of his estimated £2.5m estate for his ex-wife Winnie. She was demanding ownership of the ancestral home of Mandela in Qunu.

Before Mandela died there was plenty of bickering and family divisions. Whilst the former South African president was still in hospital fighting for his life, a case was fought in court between his grandson, Mandla, and 16 other relatives. The battle was over the three bodies of Mandela’s children. The 16 relatives wanted these bodies to be exhumed and reburied. They won. Mandla thought they were being vengeful and trying to control his grandfather’s legacy.

  1. J Howard Marshall II – Oil tycoon

J Howard Marshall II – a name not many people had heard of until after his death. Mr Marshall amassed a huge fortune an oil tycoon and died with an estate to the tune of $1.6 billion.

In 1994 and at the age of 89, he married Anna Nicole Smith, who gained fame as a Playboy model, and was just 26 years old. The marriage only lasted 14 months before Marshall passed away. In his final will, he left absolutely nothing to his new wife of 14 months, leaving the majority of his fortune to his son.

Smith claimed that she was promised half of Marshall’s estate and that his son, E. Pierce Marshall, had prevented him from doing so through fraud, forgery and false imprisonment. Smith allegedly joined forces with Marshall’s other son who had been disowned.

There was a lot of going back and forth over the next decade with courts frequently overruling each other. Pierce Marshall died in 2006 and Smith died in 2007. Their surviving relatives vowed to continue the fight in court.

  1. Jimi Hendrix – Guitar legend

In 1970 Jimi Hendrix joined the infamous ‘27’ club when he passed away in a hotel in Kensington, London. The guitar legend died with an estate valued at over $80m, but without having made a will. The battle over the estate has pitted his half-brother against his adopted sister.

A California attorney had control over Hendrix’s estate until 1995 when his father, Al, sued for the right to his son’s music. When Al died in 2002 most of the estate’s control was transferred to Jimi’s adopted sister, Janie, at the wish of Al.

This was much to the dislike of Jimi’s half-brother, Leon, who had been left out of the will altogether. Leon demanded to be written back into the will, stating that Janie had manipulated her father. It all turned rather sour; Janie claiming that Leon was a drug abuser, Leon claiming Janie spent $1.7m on her credit card.

So how did it end up? The Superior Court upheld Al’s will and Leon was left excluded.

  1. Nina Wang – Asia’s richest woman

Nina Wang died in 2007 leaving behind an estate of around £2.6bn. In a case that absorbed Hong Kong, her partner Peter Chan, quickly tried to stake his claim on the inheritance. However, the court ruled against Mr Chan and her estate went to charity instead.

In a shock revelation, Chan ended being sentenced to 12 years in jail for forging Wang’s will. It wasn’t the first time Wang and her estate had been the focal point of a legal battle. In 1990, a dispute ensued over the mysterious kidnapping and disappearance of Teddy Wang, her husband at the time.

  1. Liliane Bettencourt – L’Oreal heiress

The heiress to the L’Oreal fortune, and France’s richest woman, was involved in a large dispute surrounding her estate said to be worth $40.9bn. In 2010, her daughter declared that her mum did not have mental capacity as it was claimed she had given a celebrity photographer, Francois-Marie Banier around €1bn euros in gifts over 20 years. There came further allegations of tax evasion and illegal donations to Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign in 2007.

Ms Bettencourt, who is now 92 and suffering from dementia, is involved in another case that was opened in 2015. Ten men are accused of trying to exploit millions of euros from the heiress, including her former nurse who tried to kill himself on the eve of the trial.

  1. Leona Helmsley & her dog – Hotel magnate

New York Real estate magnate Leona Helmsley died in 2007 with a fortune between $5-8bn. She left most of her estate to charity, excluding her two grandchildren and rather strangely left $12m of her estate to her dog, Trouble, who lived up her name. Helmsley wasn’t short of controversy during her lifetime, being jailed in 1992 for tax evasion.

When bequeathed with $12m, Trouble had to be flown to a secret location by private jet after receiving death threats.
However, in 2009 a judge ruled that Trouble should only get $2m with $6m going to the disinherited grandchildren and the rest to charity.

  1. BB King – King of Blues

The battle of BB King’s estate started before he passed away in May 2015. King put his long-time manager, Laverne Toney, in legal control of his affairs, to the dismay of his children. Three of King’s 11 children opened a case to take over guardianship and become executors of his will. They claimed Toney was stealing the money, neglecting Mr King’s medical needs and preventing them from seeing their father. The children claimed in excess of $1m was unaccounted for. A judge in Las Vegas found no evidence of unfair play, neglect or abuse.

  1. James Brown – Godfather of Soul

Singer James Brown left behind an estate worth $100m in 2006. He specified that he wanted his money to be divided into two trusts: one for the education of his grandchildren and disadvantaged youths in South Carolina and Georgia. Brown make his wishes clear and even stated he hadn’t left any relatives out by mistake! Further to this when James Brown ‘got married’ to Tomi Rae Hynie, she was already married to another man.

However, despite his clarity, his wife and children challenged the will in 2009 and were awarded $50m. The deal did not pass in court and the estate is now sitting in limbo until the case is resolved.

  1. Martin Luther King Jr – Civil rights activist

Cracks began to show in Rev King Jr.’s family relationships in 2008 when two of his children brought a case against their brother. Dexter King, who was the estate’s executor was alleged to have “wrongfully appropriated” funds from his parents’ estates by Bernice King and Martin Luther King III. Dexter refused to show his two siblings financial records and other documents to detail the estate’s operations.

Dexter was involved in another stir in 2009 when he brokered a deal with DreamWorks studios to produce a film about Rev King Jr.’s life. He did this without consulting Bernice and Martin III, who didn’t want the deal to go ahead.

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