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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - Marilyn Monroe - Episode 38

Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to “estate planning of the rich and famous” where we chat about celebrities and their estate planning. Today’s episode is on Marilyn Monroe, a name most people sure will recognize! According to Marilyn Monroe’s Wikipedia page, she is described as: “an American actress, model, and singer. [She was] famous for playing comedic ‘blonde bombshell’ characters, [and] she became one of the most popular sex symbols of the 1950s and early 1960s and was emblematic of the era’s sexual revolution.” So, as always, let’s talk a little about Marilyn personally before we dive into her estate plan and what happened estate-wise following her passing.

A little fun fact – you know that Marilyn Monroe was not her “real” name, right? Well maybe you did, maybe you didn’t – but her “real” name was Norma Jean Mortenson. Marilyn, as a child and even through her teenage years, had QUITE the bumpy upbringing. Reading about what she went through about broke my heart. A perfect example of it was her first marriage to a gentleman by the name of James Dougherty. According to her Wikipedia page, after ending up going through foster care, multiple families, and orphanages, she attended high school in California. The family she was residing with at the time, the husband was getting relocated – so instead of possibly having to return to the orphanage, where she was prior to the family, she married the neighbor’s 21 year old son, James Dougherty, when she was 16 years old.

At that time, she dropped out of high school and became a homemaker. James enlisted in the service and she followed him to Santa Catalina Island, where he was stationed. While she began working in a factory, it was in 1944 she began modeling. She gained attention thereafter pretty darn quickly – according to Wikipedia, she had appeared on 33 magazine covers by early 1946 (a mere 2 years later). It was in 1946, too, that Marilyn and James divorced. Shortly after her modeling gaining more-and-more attention, she also began dipping her toes in acting. Just like her modeling career, her acting career took off – while there were some issues (that we won’t get to since we don’t have time) with 20th Century Fox, she wanted to shift the negative “light” of those issues to positive “light” … this is when she and Joe DiMaggio got married. Though, the marriage was short-lived and the two got divorced in 1955.

Before the divorce was finalized, she had been dating a gentleman by the name of Arthur Miller, who was a well-known playwright. They ended up getting married in 1956. Marilyn and Arthur desired to have children; however, they had trouble and sadly experienced miscarriages. They never ended up having any children. Sadly, this wore on Marilyn and she was hospitalized due to a barbiturates overdose. Again, Marilyn and her spouse had issues (that were often amplified due to Marilyn’s drug addiction) – and she and Arthur eventually got a divorce in 1961.

In the Fall the next year, 1962, Marilyn’s housekeeper was staying overnight and in the middle of the night, noticed Marilyn’s bedroom light still on. After making a call to her Psychiatrist and police, Marilyn was found dead in her bed on August 4, 1962. She was only 36 years old at the time. According to the toxicology report, she passed away due to acute barbiturate poisoning. The deputy coroner, after taking in all the facts, stated it was a “probable suicide.”

After her passing, a Last Will and Testament was located. Yay! At least we’re starting with some good news on this front. It’s not going to stay “good news” so let me just have my happy moment for a second, okay!

According to an article on Liveabout, Marilyn’s Will, since she only had a Will, was filed for probate in New York a handful of days after her passing. Nearly immediately after the Will was filed to probate, one of Marilyn’s business managers contested the Will, but it was officially determined to be a valid Will and admitted to probate in October 1962. That’s a couple months after she passed away. So, it sounds like it took a couple of months to shew away the business manager. Beyond that, it was at that point that the Will’s provisions were made “public.”

Marilyn’s Will left her Estate like this:

- Marilyn’s half-sister, Bernice, was to receive $10,000;

- Marilyn’s personal secretary, May, was to receive $10,000;

- Marilyn’s friends, Norma and Hedda, were to each receive $5,000

- Marilyn’s mother, Gladys, was to receive $100,000 to be held in Trust

- Marilyn’s personal belongings were to go to her friend &acting coach, Lee Strasberg;

- All remaining assets were to be divided between her personal secretary, May, her mother’s Psychiatrist to “to be used by her for the furtherance of the work of such psychiatric institutions or groups as she shall elect” and her friend and acting coach, Lee Strasberg. Lee was to get the heavy majority of the remaining assets coming in at 75% going to him. So yeah, it wasn’t an equal divide, Lee got MOST of it.

That sounds all fine and dandy, right?! Well, I’m sure you, Legal Tea Listeners, know better than that!

According to a blog by Roulet Law Firm (a law firm in Minnesota and Florida), shortly after Marilyn passed away, Lee Strasberg passed away, but because he survived Marilyn (when she passed), his Estate still got what he was to get from Marilyn’s Estate. Here’s the kicker – Lee’s Estate went to his third wife, Anna Strasberg, who Marilyn never even met. Anna, when she received what Lee got from Marilyn’s Estate, proceeded to essentially capitalize on things.

For example, according to Roulet Law Firm’s blog, Anna licensed Marilyn’s “likeness and products to hundreds of companies including Mercedes-Benz, Coca-Cola, and others – earning millions.” The blog further shares that many of Marilyn’s personal belongings were auctioned off, including the dress that she famously wore when she sang “Happy birthday, Mr. President” to President Kennedy. That was won for $1M. Or, according to Trust Counsel, Anna auctioned off Marilyn’s baby grand piano, which she received from her mother. That was won by Mariah Carey for $600,000. All of this is said to have earned lots and lots of millions of dollars for Anna … you know, Anna, the lady that Marilyn never met. Though, Marilyn can only blame herself – her plan did not “account” for this happening, but it sure could have. More on that in a just a second…

As you probably are piecing together, Marilyn’s Estate had a lot of moving parts. When I started researching for this episode, I kept seeing it referred to as the “40 year probate estate.” Well, I found out … that’s exactly what happened. Marilyn’s Estate was open from 1962 (the year that Marilyn passed away) until 2001 – 2001 is when the New York Probate Court determined that the Estate was officially done and settled.

Before we dive into what Marilyn could have done to avoid what happened (specifically with Anna Strasberg), one last quick thing to chat about – taxes. So, like we’ve seen happen to so many other celebrities, a dispute arose between Marilyn’s Estate and the IRS. According to, the Estate claimed that Marilyn’s Estate’s domicile (the place/the state where the person resided) was New York. However, in the middle of the Estate proceeding, New York passed some tax laws that caused her Estate representatives to say, “You know what – let’s make California our domicile so we can pay less tax.” Well, that’s fine, except from the beginning, they claimed New York was the domicile. You can’t just up and switch it like that – otherwise, EVERYONE would do that, right?

The dispute between the Estate and the IRS ended up going through the Court and the District Court Judge, whose name is Kim McLane Wardlaw, ultimately sided with the IRS. She said (in much more legalese), “Nope – your domicile is New York. Not California.” Hilariously, in some her final remarks, Judge Wardlaw said (with a figurative nod to Marilyn’s often-quoted saying), “If you’re going to be two-faced, at least make one of them pretty.” Wow – what a mic drop moment. I’m sure Judge Wardlaw was thinking, “Come the heck on – you can’t just flip and flop between states to your benefit tax-wise. It doesn’t work like that!” So funny.

Alright, what can we learn from Marilyn’s estate? Among a few other things, there IS a way to control inheritances for beneficiaries. Believe it or not, it IS possible. It often is accomplished by utilizing a Trust – and specifically, the beneficiary themselves inherit a Trust. I know this is kind of legal-technical-y, but what happens is YOUR estate plan provides the beneficiaries’ inheritances via a Trust and YOU write the terms for their Trust. The beneficiaries can’t really add their own assets; it’s mainly to control what happens to their inheritance. So, had Marilyn did something like this – this would have allowed her to dictate, “Okay, well if Lee passes away, THIS is what happens to what he got from my Estate.”

If you want to do something like this, an experienced estate planner can help with this. Any ol’ attorney may NOT be able to do this. I mean zero disrespect to my general practitioner attorney friends, but there’s estate planning … but when you want to do something like this, it’s kind of estate planning 2.0. I was having a conversation with a client last week about how any attorney can throw document together for you (will they be GOOD documents? Maybe, maybe not) but will every attorney take the time to discuss how assets play together with the documents; will every attorney help you come up with creative options to control inheritances for your beneficiaries; will every attorney counsel you while preparing estate planning documents; etc. The answer is … no.

Alrighty, let’s wrap this episode up – next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases (you know, not celebrity-level cases) that I, or my office, have personally worked on. Next week, we’re going to be talking about a case where, unfortunately after their mother passed away, the kids are fighting NOT about who gets what, but fighting about who is in control (the Executor/Personal Representative). They’re all not budging – and the legal fees keep accumulating. And they don’t care.

So yeah, tune in for that next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners! Until then, take care and be well!


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