The best picture-nominated biopic “Elvis” brought back the spotlight on the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, earning several film awards and nominations. Austin Butler’s brilliant performance as Elvis Presley earned him a Golden Globe as Best Actor during the awards ceremony in January, as well as a nod in the same category at the Academy Awards this past weekend.
However, glamorous actors and golden trophies weren’t the only Elvis-related things drawing attention this awards season. While the world continues to celebrate Graceland’s legacy, the Presleys are in the midst of fighting over it.
What is the Presley estate battle about, and why is it back in the limelight? Is this rift somehow caused by the 2022 film, or is it just coincidence? Why does Austin Butler somehow appear to be involved? Trust & Will investigates.
Who is Elvis Presley?
Elvis Aaron Presley (January 8, 1935 - August 16, 1977), or simply Elvis, is a prominent figure in American history. He was a musician, actor, and U.S. Army Sergeant widely recognized as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the best-selling solo artist of all time. According to Graceland, he has sold over one billion records worldwide and has been inducted into five Halls of Fame. Some of his most popular tracks include “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” “Hound Dog,” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
Presley came from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi to working-class parents with little money. His love for music may have begun when his mother gifted him his first guitar at the age of 11. He began touring in 1954 with his first single, “That’s All Right.” Soon enough, he became a teenage sensation with a large following. Rising to fame, he appeared frequently on television, movies, and soundtracks.
In 1967, he married Priscilla Wagner. They divorced in 1973 after their marriage fell apart. Elvis also struggled with addiction to prescription drugs and his weight, ultimately passing away of heart failure at the age of 42 in 1977. He had one daughter, Lisa Marie, who went on to have four children, including actress Riley Keough.
Elvis’ home, Graceland, is located in Memphis, Tennessee and is open to the public as a museum and attraction. Thousands of fans visit the site each year to honor the King.
“Elvis” celebrations overshadowed by tragedy
In January 2023, the press covering the Golden Globe Awards ceremony reported on Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley’s reactions as Austin Butler gave his acceptance speech for Best Actor.
According to the New York Times, Lisa Marie “clasped her hands around her mouth,” and Priscilla “had her hand on her heart.” Priscilla and Lisa Marie have had a hot-and-cold relationship over the years, so many were happy to see them “nestled together at the table like family.”
Multiple members of the Presley family, as well as those closely-related, were pleased with Luhrmann and Butler’s interpretation of the King. “Austin Butler channeled and embodied my father’s heart & soul beautifully,” tweeted Lisa Marie, who developed a friendship with Butler.
Just days later, however, headlines related to the Presleys turned tragic. Lisa Marie Presley had passed away after being hospitalized for cardiac arrest. She was just 54 years old.
What the public wouldn’t have expected, however, was for the Lisa Marie tragedy to quickly turn into a controversy. Here’s what happened.
The Presley estate: a brief history
When Elvis passed away in 1997, his estate was valued at $5 million. For context, this is a meager amount relative to what it could have been due to overspending and questionable business decisions. The remaining funds were left in a Trust.
After the passing of several relatives, Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie became the sole beneficiary of the Trust. Priscilla, who divorced Elvis yet remained lifelong friends, was appointed as a Trustee. Under Priscilla’s stewardship, the estate grew from $5 million to $100 million by 2005, largely due to a decision to open Graceland to the public.
In 2005, Lisa Marie moved the Presley assets to the Promenade Trust, with Priscilla and Barry Siegel (the family’s business manager) as its Trustees. This was the start of Lisa Marie’s “11-year odyssey of financial ruin,” according to the Times. Like father, like daughter, excessive and continuous spending was to blame. Lisa Marie sold 85 percent of the estate to pay down debt. Even still, the Presley Estate continues to make Elvis one of the wealthiest dead celebrities to date. Forbes estimated that it earned $23 million in 2020 alone, making the estate worth up to $500 million.
Successorship of the Presley Estate is called into question again today with the sudden and tragic death of Lisa Marie.
The Presley estate battle
Priscilla is challenging an amendment that was made to the Promenade Trust in 2016. She filed papers at the Los Angeles Superior Court just two weeks after Lisa Marie’s death.
The amendment removed Priscilla and Siegel as Co-Trustees and replaced them with two of Lisa Marie’s four children, Riley and Benjamin Keough, in the event of her death. Benjamin passed away via suicide in 2020, rendering Riley as the sole Trustee of the entire Presley Estate.
Priscilla is arguing that the amendment is invalid and is requesting that the court appoint her as a Trustee.
Attorneys representing Priscilla claim that she was never notified of the amendment, which is required per the Trust’s provisions. Further, they are calling into question whether the amendment is valid. They claim that Lisa Marie’s signature is inconsistent with what it usually looks like, and are calling into question whether fraudulent activity took place. (Learn about the penalties of committing estate theft and fraud here.)
Keough’s representatives have declined to respond, but other executives close to the family have commented that it was always Lisa Marie’s intent to have the two siblings to run the Trust. Priscilla’s camp has asked the public to give the family time to sort things out.
What’s going to happen?
As the case currently unfolds, it is unclear what will happen to the Presley estate. Priscilla’s shocking death highlights how complex estate administration can be. It may take months or even years to adjudicate.
If the 2016 amendment is voided, it is possible that Priscilla will be re-appointed as a Trustee of the estate. If evidence shows that no terms of the Trust were violated at the time of the amendment, it is possible that Keough will continue to serve as its sole Trustee. It does appear, however, that the estate will remain in the Presley family. In any case, fans remain concerned what the future may hold for Graceland.
As it turns out, the celebration of “Elvis” and ensuing estate battle are separate events. The timing is a complete coincidence, although they at first appear closely intertwined. If anything, the film helped pull Priscilla together with her daughter one last time before her tragic passing. However, one can’t help but wonder about the Presley legacy, where success and celebration always seem to be followed by downfall and tragedy.
In the meantime, the Presley controversy serves as a reminder of the importance of reviewing your estate planning documents and updating them when events take place. The Elvis estate provides a prime example of how the handling of multigenerational wealth can go awry when unexpected events take place and produce equally unexpected outcomes, which can lead to family strife.
Having as much wealth as the Presley estate appears to be both a blessing and a curse, and chances are, your own task at hand will be much more straightforward. Here at Trust & Will, we have supported thousands of families through the process of setting up an Estate Plan so that they can protect their assets and thus the legacy that can be passed down to future generations.
Our platform makes it easy to set up a Will and/or Trust if it’s your first time around, as well as to stay on top of your documents and update them as needed. At Trust & Will, we’re here to help keep things simple. You can create a fully customizable, state-specific estate plan from the comfort of your own home in just 20 minutes. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning and settlement options today!
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