In October 2022, singer and songwriter Jerry Lee Lewis passed away. He left behind a rock legacy, a big family, and an estate valued in the multi-millions.
We often follow the lives of celebrities and dream of having their lavish lifestyles. Even so, famous folks experience many similar estate planning challenges just like the rest of us. This includes implementing the optimal tax strategy, as well as distributing assets to loved ones when deceased.
Lewis’s passing has prompted many to look back fondly at his music career. Aside from that though, it begs the question: what will shake out with his sizable estate? Let’s play “what if” in the following estate planning scenarios and see which lessons can be learned for celebrities and regular folks alike:
Jerry Lee Lewis lived a long life, passing at the old age of 87. Like other rock icons of the last century (Elvis, Johnny Cash), Lewis’s lifestyle put hard miles on him. Even though he engaged in substance abuse and experienced health problems, he outlived other leading rockers and was deemed “the last man standing from the dawn of rock and roll” by New York Magazine.
You likely have heard his greatest hit, “Great Balls of Fire”, but Lewis had a variety of other hits that earned him four Grammy wins. Lewis was inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame. His music career spanned for an astounding seven decades, and he produced over forty albums.
At his death, Lewis left behind his seventh wife, Judith Coglan Lewis, and four of the six surviving children from his marriages. In the years preceding his death, a feud ensued between Lewis and his daughter, Phoebe, and her husband, Ezekiel Loftin. Lewis sued the Phoebe and her husband in 2017 for taking advantage of his financial status. Charges were later dropped.
Lewis had his fair share of financial missteps, filing for bankruptcy in 1988. The filing included more than $3 million in debts. This came from over $2 million in IRS dues, unpaid medical bills, and tens of thousands in attorney fees. Still, his net worth at the time of his death was estimated to be in the range of $10 million and $15.4 million.
As professional estate planning attorneys, we evaluate the life and legacy of Jerry Lee Lewis through the perspective of our field of expertise. While his tumultuous and fast-paced lifestyle may not align with our personal experiences, we recognize the valuable insight it provides in regards to common estate planning issues. In this discourse, we will address several issues related to Lewis's estate that are particularly noteworthy.
Based on what we know about Lewis’s relationship with his daughter, Phoebe, it is likely that he will remove her from any consideration to receive a portion of his assets. Mississippi law permits individuals to disinherit beneficiaries under a legitimate basis. However, it is worth noting that Phoebe has established her own career in the music industry and has done quite well for herself, potentially rendering any inheritance unnecessary.
The distribution of assets for his remaining children is yet to be determined. While most parents opt for equal distribution of assets among their children, the unique circumstances of the Lewis family dynamic require analysis of what is equal versus what is fair.
We can take lessons away from the Lewis family and apply them to our own situation. Each child has financial needs unique to their lives. While some are able to obtain financial freedom, others may struggle. A family’s financial picture can change for better or for worse between the birth of children as well. For instance, a younger child might enjoy a slightly more affluent lifestyle than the older siblings, simply because their parents have worked their way to a better career milestone and are making more money now than they were. This is why dividing assets equally within an estate plan is not always the fairest method for all parties.
Will He Transfer Assets to His Surviving Spouse?
Lewis was married a staggering seven times, and each came with their own controversies. His seventh wife was by his bedside upon his death. Will he distribute assets to her?
In the case that Lewis did not have a will in place, intestate law would take effect. This would automatically make his spouse the primary beneficiary. It’s not a far off scenario – about two thirds of American adults fail to compose a will. Rock icons can fall into this category if they fail to do some basic estate planning before death.
In the case that Lewis did have a will, he still could have left his entire estate, or a portion, to the surviving wife. If he just left a portion, those assets could be given to her as a lump sum, or distributed over time under the management of the estate’s trustee.
Lewis also would have had options deciding the type of trust set up. The pros and cons of these different types are as follows:
Even though death and taxes are certain in life, estate taxes may not fall into this category. It all depends on the breadth of the estate at Lewis’s death, and the amount of the lifetime exemption used.
The lifetime gift and estate tax exemption denotes the maximum amount of wealth that an individual can pass on to their heirs without incurring estate taxes. Such transfers can take place either as gifts throughout a person's lifetime or at the time of their death.
In 2022, the federal lifetime gift and estate tax exemption threshold was $12.06 million, rising to $12.92 million in 2023. Based on the conservative estimate of Lewis's net worth, the value of his estate is lower than the 2022 lifetime exemption limit. Therefore, in the absence of any previous use of his exemption during his lifetime, he may not require workarounds for estate taxes if his spouse does not posses substantial personal assets. It is worth noting that for couples, the exemption amount doubles to $25.84 million in 2023.
Mississippi does not impose an estate tax, so Lewis's estate does not need to worry about such a tax being levied. However, if Lewis had passed away in a state that imposes an estate tax, or if he had owned property in such a state, then his estate might have been subject to an additional tax due to his death. The exemption amount and tax rate for each state's estate tax are determined by that state.
In the case that Lewis's spouse does possesses assets and wealth that surpass the individual gift and estate tax exemption limit, it may behoove her to ask for the deceased spousal unused exclusion (DSUE) amount. The DSUE provision, aimed at helping the surviving spouse, allows the unused exemption amount of the deceased spouse to be transferred to the surviving spouse in case the former did not use up the entire exemption amount. In simpler terms, Lewis's wife would be eligible to receive a DSUE amount of $2.06 million, calculated based on the 2022 exemption of $12.06 million and Lewis's estimated estate value of $10 million.
Based on the 2022 exemption of $12.06 million and an estimated estate value of $10 million, Lewis's wife would be eligible for a DSUE amount of $2.06 million.
It is impossible to know for sure how Jerry Lee Lewis chose to allocate his wealth. His wife and children may be as uninformed as the general public, and there could be unexpected elements in his estate plan that have yet to surface.
The Lewis family requested that instead of sending flowers for his funeral, contributions be made in his name to either the Arthritis Foundation or MusiCares. It raises the question whether Lewis may have chosen to allocate a significant portion of his estate to these or other charitable organizations instead of his family.
Only time will tell how it’ll play out. We may not even get the full story if he left his estate to charity, since it’s common for charity information to stay private.
Ironing out an estate plan is not exclusive to rock-and-roll icons. Regardless of the complexities of your estate, it is essential to develop a plan for the distribution of your assets, settling your debts, and ensuring that your wealth goes to the individuals and causes that matter to you. Contact Anderson, Dorn & Rader’s office today to arrange a consultation with our team of estate planning attorneys and begin planning for the future.