Elvis Has Left the Building
In 1977, when Elvis Presley died (to put a complicated situation very simply), his estate and any future royalties generated by his intellectual property, including his music, passed into a trust. That trust created a business entity, Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., to conduct business and manage the estate’s assets, including both Graceland and Elvis’s music and image. By 1980, Lisa Marie Presley—Elvis’s only child—was the sole remaining beneficiary of the trust. In 1993, Lisa Marie created a trust to hold her interest in Elvis’s estate, the Promenade Trust, with herself as the primary beneficiary during her lifetime and Priscilla Presley, her mother and Elvis’s former wife, and Barry Siegel as trustees. In 2005, the Promenade Trust sold 85% of Elvis Presley Enterprises, retaining a 15% stake in Elvis Presley Enterprises, Graceland, and other personal effects of Elvis.
In 2016, Lisa Marie amended the Promenade Trust to remove her mother and Mr. Siegel as trustees; to name herself as trustee; and to nominate her daughter, Riley Keough, and son, Benjamin Keough, as successor trustees. Only two weeks after Lisa Marie’s untimely death, Priscilla filed suit to challenge the 2016 trust amendment on the grounds that the amendment was invalid for not having been delivered to Priscilla, as required by the terms of the trust, and was fraudulent because Lisa Marie’s signature did not match.
Whatever the underlying issues of the Presley family and whatever the truth of this sordid matter, today I will discuss what lessons can be learned from a fiduciary litigation perspective: both in terms of ensuring your estate plan is honored and of challenging an estate plan.
Ensuring Your Estate Plan Stands Up to Litigation
First, and most importantly, follow the formalities. If a trust instrument requires that an amendment be signed, notarized, and delivered to all beneficiaries and trustees, you must do so to have the amendment be valid. A trust can generally set its own terms for formalities to alter or amend it. Therefore, you should work with whomever drafted your trust or consult an attorney to ensure that the proper formalities were observed. This is a deceptively simple step to avoid future litigation and a mistake that will have you in Trouble if you are the party who does not properly amend the trust.
Second, talk to your family about your wishes. Clarify for your family why you are taking certain steps. For example, in our above example, perhaps Lisa Marie amended the trust because someone advised her that Priscilla was 71 (at the time of the 2016 amendment) and that Lisa Marie may want a younger successor trustee. This is excellent estate planning advice, generally speaking. However, Priscilla may have never known of her removal. Therefore, after Lisa Marie’s death, in her grief, Priscilla may have felt this replacement was more of a slap in the face than a good estate planning strategy. An explanation may be an inexpensive way to stop fiduciary litigation before it starts; Don’t Be Cruel to your family.
Third, some family members may not make good fiduciaries. If you know that your family is full of conflict, it may be best to pick an independent trustee or personal representative. If you have two children who cannot get along, don’t choose between them; pick a favorite sibling instead. You can even look outside the family if you have a particularly trustworthy friend or acquaintance. If you have someone in your family who is nothing but a Hound Dog, that person may not make a good fiduciary.
Challenging an Estate Plan
The most important lesson from Priscilla’s action is that a challenge to an estate plan should be brought promptly. Every state has different statutes of limitation, so it is essential to know the local rules. For example, in Massachusetts, once a petition to probate a will is filed, a party who wishes to object must file a notice of appearance and objection before the return date on the citation and must then file an affidavit of objection within thirty days of the return date. If you are thinking of filing a challenge, it is best to begin consulting with an attorney promptly and, if you ultimately decide to challenge a will or a trust, don’t take Too Much time.
The second lesson is that it’s essential to have grounds to challenge an estate plan. Massachusetts does not allow a challenge to a will or trust based only on the fact that someone else is getting more money than you. Generally, you must show fraud, undue influence, lack of capacity, forgery, or some other legal reason that an instrument is invalid. Here, Priscilla seems to have two strong grounds, that the formalities were not followed and fraud. Whether she is ultimately successful on either ground will depend on what evidence supports her claims, but it appears that Lisa Marie’s attorneys may have left her some room. Don’t rely on a Good Luck Charm; you must have a legal basis for a challenge.
In conclusion, careful planning and consulting with experienced lawyers can help prevent litigation over an estate. Some conflicts may be unavoidable, but you ultimately end up in a situation in which you need fiduciary litigators.
The history of Elvis Presley’s estate in paragraphs one and two of this blog was largely sourced from: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/09/arts/music/elvis-presley-estate-dispute.html. Contradictory information is available about the lawsuit and the instruments at issue. The lawsuit is discussed here for illustrative purposes only and nothing herein should be construed as a legal opinion about the merits of the lawsuit; the trusts, wills, or other instruments at issue; or the estates of Elvis Presley or Lisa Marie Presley.
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