Presley Graceland estate

3 Lessons Learned From the Presley Trust

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I’m sure it’s my age, but as Valentine’s Day approaches and I consider the greatest love songs, the Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody and You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’, Nat King and Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable, and the Platters’ Smoke Gets in My Eyes all make my top 10. 

What about you? Do Billie Holiday’s The Very Thought of You,  Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman, or Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, make your list?

The list can certainly go on, but who can talk about love songs without bringing Elvis into the conversation? Can’t Help Falling in Love and Love Me Tender are definitely near the top of my all-time list. How about It’s Now or Never

At Graceland
Graceland trip in December 2022

My oldest son worked his way through college as a DJ and has a fond appreciation for Elvis. He made his first pilgrimage to Graceland in December, just weeks before Elvis’s only child, Lisa Marie, passed away and was laid to rest there on January 22nd at only 54 years old. 

The official cause of the Presley family’s most recent untimely death (Lisa Marie’s son died by suicide in 2020) was cardiac arrest. There are rumblings that opioids and an overly aggressive diet resulting in the rapid loss of 40-50 pounds were factors. The irony is that the aggressive diet was precipitated by her public appearances related to the critically-acclaimed movie, Elvis, released last year.

All too often, the death of a celebrity is a cautionary tale when it comes to getting our affairs in order. Priscilla Presley (Elvis’s ex-wife and Lisa Marie’s mom) already filed a lawsuit four days after she buried her daughter to remove Lisa Marie’s oldest daughter as trustee.

In Lisa Marie’s case, we can learn from some wise planning going back to Elvis, as well as some things that could have been done better.

Lesson #1: Leave your Assets in a Trust

Lisa Marie was just nine years old when Elvis died at age 42 in 1977. Elvis and Priscilla had been divorced for several years, and Lisa Marie was Elvis’s only child. To his credit, Elvis had created a clearly written will that named Lisa Marie as the beneficiary of his estate.

The will included a “testamentary trust”.  This is a trust that is triggered by death. The testamentary trust held Elvis’s assets in trust for Lisa Marie’s benefit until she turned 25. 

The downside of a “testamentary trust” is that it requires the will be probated and involvement by the state.  In 1977, this was good planning. In the ‘80s and since, revocable living trusts (a trust that is effective during your lifetime) became the instrument of choice because a living trust can be administered outside of court and thus avoid state involvement.

By leaving your assets in a trust to your loved ones, you can protect the inheritance from your heirs’ creditors, predators, and even from themselves. As long as the funds remain in trust, your assets are protected from your heirs’ lawsuits, bankruptcies, divorces, medical catastrophes, and personal problems like addictions.

Lesson #2: Birthdays Don’t Magically Qualify a Beneficiary to Take Control

Lisa Marie’s actions on taking control of the assets at age 25 and her struggle with addiction over the years suggest 25 was too early. Yet, she had an absolute right to do whatever she wanted on turning 25. 

The better approach is to identify an age in the trust at which time the beneficiary can take control of their share, but have a safety net by giving the then-serving trustee the right to evaluate the beneficiary’s behavior. If the beneficiary is struggling, the trustee can continue to use trust funds for their benefit but hold off on handing over the checkbook until the beneficiary is ready.

Lesson #3: DIY Estate Planning – Worth the Risk?

When Lisa Marie was in her mid-30s, she liquidated most of the remaining trademark rights (around $100 million), but kept a controlling interest in Graceland and its memorabilia. Since then, Graceland was Lisa Marie’s primary asset. Over 500,000 people visit Graceland each year.  My son paid a $50 entry fee. Do the math!

Lisa Marie wisely owned Graceland in a trust. She initially named her mother and business manager as successor co-trustees. Her relationship with her mother deteriorated, and she sued her business partner for mismanagement. In 2016, she attempted to amend her trust to remove Priscilla and her business manager as successor trustees and replace them with her oldest daughter and her now deceased oldest son.

The amendment was assumedly not executed with an attorney’s help as it was not notarized and spelled Priscilla’s name wrong. The lawsuit filed four days after Lisa Marie’s funeral seeks to have the 2016 amendment nullified and to restore Priscilla as trustee of her grandchildren’s trust. 

The 2016 amendment was a simple matter for any competent estate planning attorney.  It would have cost Lisa Marie pennies compared to tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, the upcoming court battle will cost her children’s trust.  If you want true peace of mind, hire an expert estate planning attorney to help you with even the simplest of changes to your estate plan. 

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