The Purple One’s death on April 21 has triggered an almighty probate battle. Prince left no will and has no direct next-of-kin. According to Minnesota law, the late musician’s $300 million (£225m) fortune, Paisley Park mansion and lucrative back catalogue can be claimed by his closest relatives. Needless to say, plenty of ‘family members’ have come out of the woodwork to grab a piece of the pie. Earlier this month, the judge overseeing the estate rejected 29 phony claims and restricted the potential beneficiaries to Prince’s sister and five half-siblings, as well as a possible niece and grand-niece, ordering them to take DNA tests to prove their genetic connection. While this should narrow things down, the whole process is likely to drag on for some time yet.
Screen icon Joan Crawford died in 1977, leaving one of the most explosive wills in Hollywood history. The formidable actress and businesswoman famously disinherited her two older children Christina and Christopher from her $2 million (£1.5m) estate “for reasons which are well-known to them”. The siblings sued for a share of the estate, arguing that Crawford had been manipulated into disinheriting them by younger daughter Cathy and her husband Jerome. Christina and Christopher were finally awarded a relatively paltry $55,000 (£41k), but Christina had the last laugh. She went on to pen “Mommie Dearest”, a shocking tell-all exposé, which depicted her mother as a sadistic monster.
Ever the showman, escape artist extraordinaire and accomplished magician Harry Houdini died on Halloween 1926, leaving behind a suitably supernatural instruction in his will. Houdini was fascinated by the paranormal and was convinced he could get into contact with his wife Beatrice from beyond the grave. Houdini’s will contains a special request instructing his wife to conduct a yearly séance. The magic pioneer included an esoteric 10-digit code his spirit would use, so Beatrice would know it was really him. Mrs Houdini carried out her late husband’s wishes, putting on séances once a year for 10 years after his death – sadly, he never showed up.
The original blonde bombshell left all her belongings, including furnishings, clothes and jewellery to Lee Strasberg, her acting coach and mentor. In her will, Monroe stipulated that she wanted her personal effects to be shared out among her friends, colleagues “and those to whom I am devoted”. Instead, Strasberg hoarded his treasure trove of memorabilia, and watched it surge in value until his death in 1982. The estate passed to Strasberg’s third wife Anna, who made a cool $13.4 million (£10m) from a Christie’s sale in 1999. The lots included the famous JFK Happy Birthday gown, which went for $1 million (£749k), and Monroe’s baby grand piano, which was snapped up by Mariah Carey for $600,000 (£449k).
Oil magnate J. Howard Marshall II hit the headlines when he married Playboy Playmate Anna-Nicole Smith – 62 years his junior – a mere 14 months before his death in 1995. His will provided for his youngest son E. Pierce but left nothing for Anna-Nicole and the tycoon’s eldest son J. Howard Marshall III. Smith and J. Howard Marshall III launched lawsuit after lawsuit against the estate, seeking to contest the will and trust. Their cases went all the way to the US Supreme Court, and Smith’s case dragged on for years following her death in 2007. In the end, both claimants lost their legal challenges and E. Pierce got to keep the bulk of the estate.
William Shakespeare amassed a not-too-shabby fortune during his glittering career and by the time of his death in April 1616, the Bard was a very rich man. Shakespeare’s will was drawn up a month before his death, and provided generously for his children and other family members. His wife Anne Hathaway was not so lucky. Shakespeare left his spouse his “second-best” bed and not much else. It’s worth pointing out however that beds were particularly prized and valuable during this period of history, and in any case, Anne Hathaway would have been entitled a third of her husband’s estate, according to the law in England at the time.