Marilyn Monroe's Estate - Learn from Her Mistakes

In the drafting work we perform for our clients, we often use various types of trusts.  There are  many things a trust can do including helping to address issues related to incapacity, protecting your assets from creditors, and avoiding or minimizing hassles related to the probate process after you die.  But one aspect of trusts that is often underappreciated is how a trust can be used to maintain a certain degree of control over what happens to your assets even after you have passed.  To put it another way, when you leave assets to your heirs outright you will have no control over what happens to those assets down the road. 

By the time Marilyn Monroe died of a drug overdose in August 1962 she had been divorced three times and she left no children.  As far as we know Monroe did not create a trust while she was alive.  Therefore all of her assets passed according to the brief three page Will she executed in January 1961 shortly before her divorce from the playwright Arthur Miller.  That instrument left some small bequests for a number of individuals including Monroe’s half-sister, her secretary, her mother, and several friends.  But ultimately 75% of Monroe’s remaining assets were to be distributed outright to Lee Strasberg, the famed acting coach.

When Lee Strasberg himself died in 1982, his assets passed to his third wife Anna.  Monroe only met Anna one time in her life, so they barely knew each other.  Yet nonetheless that individual who was essentially a stranger to Monroe inherited Lee Strasberg’s interest in Marilyn’s Estate.  And that interest has proved lucrative to her indeed.  Anna soon hired a company to license products using Monroe’s image.  Then she auctioned off a number of Monroe’s personal belongings including the dazzling gown she wore to President John f. Kennedy’s birthday party which sold for more than $1 million.  She also fought and waged a lawsuit over Monroe’s image.  Eventually she sold the rest of her interest in Marilyn’s estate to another branding company for an estimated $20 million to $30 million.  It is a sad irony that Anna has made more money off of Marilyn Monroe’s likeness than Marilyn Monroe herself did in her own lifetime.

It is doubtful that that Monroe would have wanted Anna Strasberg to benefit so much from Monroe’s likeness and the assets she left behind.  We can only speculate on the nature of Monroe’s relationship with the other friends and family members who received small bequests under her Will.  But it is likely if Monroe thought about it she would probably have preferred that any one of those other individuals benefit from her wealth over the third wife of her former acting coach some 20 years after her death.

What Monroe should have done is set up a trust.  Her trust could have benefited Strasberg during his life but then directed who would benefit from the trust assets after he passed.  She would have had quite a bit of flexibility in making the trust conform to her own personal preferences and beliefs.  But unfortunately she did not set up a trust and instead left the bulk of her fortune outright and so things did not turn out the way she would have intended.

The 40 Year Probate Estate

Believe it or not, Marilyn Monroe's estate remained open until 2001. At that time the New York Surrogate Court finally declared the estate completely settled and authorized the transfer of the remaining assets of the estate to Marilyn Monroe LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, managed by Anna Strasberg. As indicated above, Strasberg owned 75% of the company, and the Anna Freud Centre owned 25%. In 2010, the LLC was acquired by Authentic Brands Group and NECA for an estimated $50 million, which in turn formed a company named The Estate of Marilyn Monroe, LLC. The estate continues to generate significant earnings, coming in at #6 on Forbes top-earning dead celebrities list for 2011 - 2012, bringing in $15 million, only behind the estates of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.

Consider Everything – Carefully

When creating an estate plan, it’s important to consider everything very carefully. While you may want a specific person to benefit from your estate, the probability that someone else will get control of your assets is likely unless you provide otherwise.

Monroe obviously had very good intentions for providing for help to those who are mentally ill.  Had she considered those intentions more carefully, many more people could have been helped.  Instead, someone she met once bilked her estate for their own purposes.

We can all learn from Monroe’s mistakes. We can help you come up with a good estate planning tool which provides for your family, friends, and charitable organizations.

If you have any questions about the issues presented above or care to discuss any other planning issues, please call us at 626.765.4469 visit our website at or email us at