The Beauty and The Third Wife: Marilyn Monroe’s Failed Estate Plan
Marilyn Monroe’s plan illustrates what can happen when you fail to control who inherits your estate. The famous actress and model passed away in August of 1962, leaving the bulk of her estate to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg. When Strasberg passed away, his third wife, Anna, inherited Marilyn’s estate from him – even though Marilyn and Anna never knew one another.
Anna eventually licensed Monroe’s likeness and products to hundreds of companies including Mercedes-Benz, Coca-Cola, and others – earning millions. In 1999, many of Monroe’s belongings were auctioned off for more than $1 million dollars. Among the items sold was the dress Monroe famously wore while singing happy birthday to President Kennedy. Anna Strasberg eventually sold the remainder of Monroe’s estate to another branding company for a reported $50 million dollars.
It is highly unlikely that Monroe would have wanted Anna Strasberg, who she had never met, to profit from her image and her belongings. However, because Monroe failed to control who actually inherited her estate, that is precisely what happened. Tens of millions of dollars went to someone she never knew.
What Marilyn Monroe Could Have Done Differently
There are a number of things Monroe could have done differently in order to keep her affairs private and to control to whom her estate eventaully went. For example, she could have used a trust rather than a will. Also, she should have left her estate in a trust for the benefit of Lee rather than giving him everything outright.
Marilyn Should Have Used a Trust Rather Than a Will
Monroe should have used a trust rather than a will. Since she used a will to express her wishes, it required going through a probate court which allowed everything to be public and subject to public scrutiny. If she would have used a trust, then her affairs could have been handled in private.
She Should Have Set Up A Trust for Lee's Benefit Rather than Give Him Her Estate Outright
Rather than leave her estate outright to Lee Strasberg, Monroe could have left her entire estate in trust for the benefit of Mr. Strasberg during his lifetime. After his passing, the balance of the estate could have gone to individuals or charities of Monroe’s choosing; rather than to someone she had never met.
Why You Should Not Give Everything Outright to Your Surviving Spouse
If you leave everything outright to your spouse, and they remarry, your assets could end up going to the new spouse and their family just like how Anna Strasberg inherited everything from Lee. How would you feel if your home, retirement accounts, lake home, beach house or farm went to someone you never met instead of being kept in your family? Also imagine, if the lake home, beach house or family farm was inherited from your parents or grandparents?
We often see this unintended inheritance in second marriages, where a surviving spouse inherits the estate and then directs it to their own children or family. The result is that the estate, often including family heirlooms, ends up in the hands of people that the deceased never intended to receive them.
Even if your spouse does not remarry, the assets could still be lost if your surviving spouse were to need long-term care or go into a nursing home.
Rather, consider leaving your assets in a trust for the benefit of your spouse. This will help to ensure that your spouse is provided for but that the assets only to go to the people or causes you want.
The lesson is clear: carefully think through who you want to receive your estate, and then make sure your estate plan is drafted to ensure that is what happens.
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