“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
— John Lenon
“‘Til we meet again. May God bless you. Adios.”
— Elvis Presley
Final concert tour in 1977
It was major news last week when Lisa Marie Presley, the only child of Elvis and Priscilla Presley, suffered a cardiac arrest at her home and died at the age of 54. A singer and philanthropist, she was actively involved with the Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation and the Grammy Foundation’s Signature Schools program. The governor of Tennessee had once declared a day in honor of her charitable work, and the mayor of New Orleans cited her for her relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina.
Earlier this week, news broke that, just as her father had done, Lisa Marie Presley had made careful estate plans to ensure that the Graceland Mansion and surrounding estate stayed in the Presley family after her death. So clear and careful was the estate plan prepared by Elvis Presley and his advisors that the Graceland website has an entire page dedicated to outlining the plan and the establishment of the Elvis Presley Trust.
Elvis and Priscilla married in 1967 when he was 32 and she was just 21. Lisa Marie, their only child together, was born exactly nine months later. They separated in 1972, and their divorce was final in October of 1973 when Lisa Marie was just 5 years old. Priscilla would go on to have a second child with her longtime partner Marco Garibaldi, but Elvis would not marry again.
Presley overdosed on drugs twice in 1973. He continued to abuse drugs throughout the 1970s, and by 1977 had high blood pressure, vision problems, liver disease and digestive issues. His family, financial advisors, and medical caregivers knew that his life was threatened by the constellation of health concerns. Rather than avoid difficult conversations with a man much too young to die, they planned accordingly. On Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis was found unresponsive in his Graceland Mansion and died a short time later, at the age of 42.
Elvis and Priscilla had been divorced for four years. He had no other children. Lisa Marie was just 9 years old. And, of course, Elvis was no regular Joe. His estate was worth millions of dollars. If not for his legal advisors, Graceland and his other holdings could have been tied up in court proceedings for years as various family members, creditors, and other interested parties fought over who got to control his money, and how old Lisa Marie had to be before she could claim control over her inheritance.
Elvis’ will, which he had executed only months before his death in March of 1977, named his father, Vernon, as his executor. Because his only child was a minor, the will then stated, “I give, devise, and bequeath all the rest, residue, and remainder of my estate, including all lapsed legacies and devices, and any property over which I have a power of appointment, to my Trustee, hereinafter named, in trust.” The will then set out several purposes for the trust — to invest the money in his estate and grow it, to use the proceeds to support Lisa Marie, Vernon, and Elvis’ grandmother Minnie Mae Presley, and to help support extended family — though this last use only for so long as Vernon was alive to manage those funds.
The will provided that Lisa Marie should inherit her portion of the estate upon reaching the age of 25. This provision is not uncommon in wills, even though children could take sole control of assets at age 18. The reason is simple — most people just aren’t mature enough to make wise decisions about money at that age. By age 25, they may have completed advanced education, started a family, be looking to buy a home, and have established a profession, etc.
The will makes several other wise declarations. It provides for successor trustees, including the National Bank of Commerce of Memphis, Tennessee. It may provisions for the distribution of funds if all named heirs die before reaching age 25. It addresses life insurance and other income. It guards against malfeasance by a trustee. And it is signed by Elvis and three witnesses.
As Vernon grew older, he named three successor trustees — the National Bank of Commerce, a business partner named Joseph Hanks, and, perhaps surprisingly to some, Elvis’ ex-wife Priscilla. Keep in mind, though, that Priscilla was Lisa Marie’s legal guardian, and that Priscilla and Elvis had remained friends. Hanks retired from his post in 1990. The trust dissolved when Lisa Marie turned 25 in 1993.
In turn, Lisa Marie formed a new trust — called the Elvis Presley Trust — to manage Graceland and the surrounding property. The bank and Priscilla continued as trustees until Priscilla retired from that position in 1998. Earlier this week, Graceland issued a statement saying that Lisa Marie would be buried there near her father and that Lisa Marie had made similar estate plans to pass the property and related businesses on to her three surviving children.
None of us have the fame or assets of Elvis Presley. But his estate planning can serve as a story of how a successful plan can benefit your family. “Don’t Be Cruel and get them “All Shook Up.” Leaving them without a will would be “Too Much.” When it comes to estate planning, “It’s Now or Never.”
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.