Just days after her funeral at Graceland, Lisa Marie Presley’s name made headlines. This time, the news stories were not memorializing her career as a singer, or her life as Elvis Presley’s only child, but rather reporting a lawsuit filed by her mother about the administration of Lisa Marie’s estate. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Priscilla Presley is asking the court to declare a 2016 document that changed who Lisa Marie appointed to be in charge of her estate as invalid.
Although many news stories have characterized the lawsuit as a will contest, the dispute actually relates to an amendment to a revocable living trust created by Lisa Marie to manage the interests she inherited from her father’s estate. A revocable living trust is a type of trust that retains the ownership of the trust assets in the person creating the trust (the “trustor) during the trustor’s lifetime and provides for the administration or distribution of these assets on the trustor’s death. A revocable trust can be amended or even revoked entirely during the trustor’s lifetime. Revocable trusts are used by many people in their estate planning in order to avoid probate. Unlike the average revocable trust, Lisa Marie’s revocable trust included the interest that she inherited from her father’s estate.
The lawsuit involves an amendment to Lisa Marie’s revocable trust that changes the trustee from Priscilla and Lisa Marie’s former business manager, Barry Siegel, to Lisa’s Marie’s two oldest children, Benjamin Keough and Riley Keough. Benjamin died in 2020, leaving Lisa Marie’s daughter, Riley, as sole trustee if the 2016 amendment to the trust is found by the court to be valid. If the amendment is found by the court to be invalid, then Priscilla would serve as co-trustee with Riley, assuming that Barry Siegel indeed intends to resign, as reported by NPR.
There are several estate planning lessons to be learned from this litigation:
- Revocable trusts do not have the same execution requirements as Wills. Among the grounds for the challenge to the amendment to Lisa Marie’s trust is an argument that the 2016 document was not witnessed or notarized. However, the amendment may not have been required to be witnessed or notarized. The news stories do not report on the state law governing the terms of Lisa Marie’s trust or provide any insight into the terms of the trust itself. In Washington, RCW 11.103.030 provides that a revocable trust can be amended or revoked by following the procedure set forth in the trust or by written instrument signed by the trustor showing intent to revoke or amend the trust.
- A revocable trust does not guarantee privacy. Many people choose to have a revocable trust as an alternative to a will to avoid public court filings which are part of the probate process. However, if a dispute develops among the trustees or beneficiaries of the revocable trust, that dispute may well end up in court and in the public eye. Here, because the dispute relates to whether the proper procedure was followed for changing the trustee, and that procedure is likely set forth in the trust, as least a portion – if not all – of the trust may end up in the public record.
- Communication is key. Here, it is unclear from the news reports when the 2016 amendment to Lisa Marie’s trust was delivered to her mother. Based on the news stories, it appears to be something that Priscilla may not have been aware of until after Lisa Marie died. The procedure set forth in the trust itself for amending the trust or changing the trust will govern whether the amendment had to be delivered to Priscilla during Lisa Marie’s to be valid. However, if Lisa Marie had communicated to her mother her intent to change the trustee appointment, the surprise that resulted in this lawsuit would likely have been avoided.
- A professional fiduciary may alleviate family conflict. Lisa Marie’s estate is now faced with what boils down to a dispute between her mother and her children. Regardless of which party prevails in the lawsuit, the family is likely to foster hard feelings against one another for years to come. Lisa Marie’s daughter may have a hard time ever looking past what boils down to getting sued by her grandmother. Appointing a neutral third-party as a trustee, like a professional fiduciary, can preserve the personal family relationships.
It is too early to guess which side will prevail in the lawsuit over who will be left charge of Lisa Marie Presley’s estate. However, there is a good chance that the lawsuit will destroy family relationships, reveal private family information to the public, and result in a sizeable chunk of assets being diverted toward legal fees, rather than being distributed to the beneficiaries. Those of us not tasked with maintaining Graceland and a multimillion-dollar legacy like Lisa Marie can still learn a lot about estate planning mistakes to avoid from what could be a long and public fight over who gets to control her estate.
This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.