Celebrity Estate Planning - Sonny Bono - Episode 80
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Today, we’re on the “estate planning of the rich and famous” topic and for today’s episode, we’re going to dive into what happened estate-wise following the passing of Sonny Bono. In his 62 years of life, he did a lot – he was a singer, he was a song writer, he was an actor, and he even got into politics in his later years (specifically I the late 1980s, early 1990s). As always on “celebrity” estate planning episodes, let’s first talk about Sonny, as a person, first, then get into all-the-estate-things after that.
According to this Wikipedia page, Sonny was born in Detroit, Michigan, but he and his family moved to California when he was seven years old. Fast forward many years, he ultimately did not finish high school, but that turned out to not really matter because in his teenage years (16 years old, I believe), he actually started to write songs – which at the young age of 16, one of his songs was picked up and recorded my music duo, Don and Dewey. So, his music career really started as a song WRITER.
In 1954, Sonny married his first wife, Donna, and they had one child in 1958 named Christine. Though, in 1962, they ended up divorcing. About that time is when Sonny met singer and actress, Cher, and they ended up getting married in 1964. In 1965, he and Cher began the singing duo, Sonny and Cher – Sonny was who wrote their famous song, “I Got You Babe.” In 1969, Sonny and Cher welcomed their child (so Sonny’s second child), Chastity (now known as Chaz). While they ended up divorcing in 1975, Sonny and Cher actually continued to perform together. In fact, their last appearance was many years later, specifically in 1987, on the David Letterman Show. They, of course, performed “I’ve Got You Babe.”
Through the 1970s and even into the 1990s, Sonny got into acting and was in various roles in some big name movies like – Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Hairspray, Men in Black – even in the Golden Girls (starring as himself). It was perhaps through these appearances that he met his next/third wife, Susie; they married in 1981, but were divorced in 1984. A couple years later, Sonny ended up marrying a fourth woman, which was his final wife, named Mary, and together, they had two children, Chesare and Chianna. So, if you kept track of all of that, Sonny had four total children – Christine, Chaz, Chesare, and Chianna.
In the late 1990s, specifically 1998, Sonny was involved in a skiing accident and ultimately died from the injuries. (Somewhat of an interesting tidbit: When he passed away, his late wife, Mary, was elected to serve out Sonny’s congressional term (remember how I said he got into politics?). Well, she did serve – and then subsequently got re-elected seven additional times before getting beat in 2012. Wow! I totally didn’t know that!) Anyway, so back to Sonny…
Sonny passed away in 1998 at the age of 62 years old. After Sonny passed away, even though he had talked about getting his estate plan done (after all, he was in his 60s!), it was discovered he did not get one done. So, he passed away without a Will, a Trust anything. No estate plan. This has been the theme lately in our celebrity estate planning episodes – the last few people we’ve covered have died without a Will. Well, Sonny was no different than the others – he died without an estate plan, which left so much to clean up. And, that’s exactly what happened. Without that estate plan, his estate went through the probate court process – and from there, his estate was administered under intestacy laws, which if you’re a faithful Legal Tea Listener, you know what that means. It means that someone dies without a Will, and the state’s intestacy laws are the “default” estate plan … meaning the state gets to pick your beneficiaries.
Through the icky probate process, three “big” messy things primarily occurred in Sonny’s estate administration – so, let’s talk about them. First, Sonny’s widow/final wife, Mary, ultimately became Executor of Sonny’s estate – but not without a bit of a fight. Because Sonny did not have a Will, he didn’t have anyone named to become his estate’s Executor. When there’s no one named, it’s, sort of, a free for all – anyone really can become the Executor. And that’s something you can definitely learn from Sonny’s estate and his poor planning – because just because Mary was his wife, doesn’t mean she’s AUTOMATICALLY going to be appointed. Mary had to prove WHY she should be appointed – and ultimately, she was appointed as the Executor. Though, I’m certain we can all imagine different families, friends, family dynamics, etc. where if that’s not someone named, it’d be like WWIII on who “should” be appointed. It’s ripe for disagreement, right? As I often say, in Sonny’s case, whose opinion was the most important on who SHOULD be named as his Executor if he were to pass? Sonny’s. And whose did we not have (but could have had if he had done an estate plan)? Sonny’s.
The second “big” messy thing that happened in Sonny’s estate was in regards to his very famous second wife, Cher. So as I discussed earlier, Sonny and Cher got divorced in 1975, right? Well, as part of the settlement agreement, according to an article on Grunge.com by Daniel Johnson and Elizabeth Maxham, Sonny was Court ordered to pay Cher $25,000 monthly for six months; $1,500 per month for child support, and $41,000 in legal fees. Well, Cher claimed that Sonny did not pay ANY of those fees. So, Cher went after Sonny’s estate to recover what she was owed – and in addition to all of that, Cher also went after Sonny’s estate regarding royalties that she claimed that Mary, as Executor of Sonny’s estate, wrongly denied Cher half of the royalties that was agreed-upon in Sonny/Cher’s divorce settlement agreement. Specifically, the value that Cher put on her half of the royalties was $1 Million Dollars. Crazy enough, the Grunge article I pulled this information from was written in 2022 – and in terms of an update on this Cher piece, they share, “As of this writing, the legal decision is still pending.” So, you heard that right – it’s STILL going on. People, he died in 1998!
And, now for the THIRD “big” messy thing that occurred in Sonny’s estate was in regards to a “love child.” Yep, a love child. Okay, so here’s the scoop. According to Johnson and Maxham’s Grunge article, after Sonny passed away, a gentleman by the name of Sean Machu made a claim on Sonny’s estate claiming that he was an illegitimate child of Sonny – and in in argument, he brought to surface that Sonny, in his autobiography, actually admitted he had an extramarital affair and did so with Sean’s mother. And furthermore on Sean’s birth certificate, it designates Sonny as the father.
Interestingly, things got a little Jerry Springer-like because Sean said that there was no relationship with Sonny at all, even after Sean attempted to call Sonny’s congressional office many times, and never got a return call. When Sean made the claim on the estate, things, of course, got a little crazy. But ultimately, Sean withdrew his claim after he did a private DNA test – the DNA test was NOT made public, so no one really knows what it said/what happened, but Mary, the Executor, made a statement that she would not contest Sean’s claim if he was ACTUALLY Sonny’s child. And that what about it – the whole “love child” thing essentially fizzled, so it’s basically assumed that Sean’s DNA test showed that he was not a biological child of Sonny since after it, Sean bowed out and, sort of, disappeared.
I think this is something else we can learn from Sonny’s estate and poor planning – you know, it’s not lost on me that the whole perfect-like family is so rare. And really, are any families really perfect?! That, people come with past relationships, past experiences, etc. and things like Ancestry.com and 23 and Me are really shining a big light on uncovering long lost and sometimes totally-unknown biological family members. I actually have a story on this topic, which I’ll share in one second, but the reason I think it’s important to bring this up is because if there’s a legitimate concern about someone coming out of the woodwork, then having an estate plan (a Will or a Trust) to specifically state WHO you are designating as beneficiaries, EVEN IF others try to come out of the woodwork. So my really quick story on this topic…
I worked with a family that long story short, when I got involved, Dad had advanced cognitive impairment, so I primarily worked with Dad’s two kids who were the Powers of Attorney. Well, fast forward a little bit of time, Dad passed away and we bring in the family, which was a good size family – I think there were like 6 kids. Well, through my interactions prior to Dad’s passing with the family, I had gotten to know all of the kids – so when they all came for the post-death meeting, I expected all 6 kids to be there. Well, I walked in, saw all 6 faces, …. And a new 7th face. I, sort of, assumed it was an in-law, to be honest.
So, as I always do, I write down WHO is all in the room for the meeting, so I write down all 6 kids’ names. I look up, look at the new face, and say, “I’m so sorry if we’ve met and my memory is just failing me, but can I ask your name and who you are?” Well, it turned out to be a biological child of Dad, that Dad had given up for adoption, and he reconnected with his “biological brothers and sisters on Ancestry.com.” I tell you what, my red flags started flying up – I’m like, “Oh, OF COURSE he’s showing up now – after Dad’s gone.” He shared, “I’m simply here to just see how I can help my brothers and sisters with this. I’m not here to cause trouble. I’m just here to support them because I didn’t even know the existed until recently.” Would you believe me if I told you that is exactly what happened? Well, believe me. I didn’t really believe him at first, haha, maybe that’s the cynic in me. Everything worked out just fine. He seriously just helped out and didn’t ask or get a penny.
But there are A LOT OF similar stories out there like this. Of family members that are not known about and I keep saying that I think this whole Ancestry.com/23 and Me stuff is really going to hit my estate industry HARD in my career. There will be a lot of people that will come out of the word work and NOT be like the story I just shared. Instead, like Sonny’s “love child” they may pop up, cause a little bit or a big mess, and if there are ANY messes that lawyers have to deal with, you already know their bill is going to be higher than had these people NOT pop up out of the wood work. Which hey, it’s only fair. If we’re working more and harder, why wouldn’t their fee be more than someone who doesn’t have these issues?!
Alrighty, I think we’re ready to put Sonny’s estate drama to rest and wrap this episode up, shall we? Next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases that I, or my office, have worked on. During that episode, we’re going to be talking about a blended family where the wife, who had two kids, really didn’t take the time to talk to her kids about how she incorporate her husband, so not their Dad, in her estate plan. So, after she passed away, emotions were high, tension was high, and I remember thinking, “Had she had a conversation with her kids, this tension could have probably been avoided.” But she didn’t. So we were left with playing referee – and maybe that’s just part of our job, but I’m not sure she would have wanted to see how many extra emotions/tension her lack of communication caused. Nonetheless, tune in for that next week, but until then, Legal Tea Listeners,– take care and be well!