Priscilla Presley’s fight to remain trustee of Lisa Marie Presley’s trust can teach anyone a few lessons on proper estate planning.
The mother of the late singer-songwriter, and only daughter of Elvis Presley, argues a 2016 amendment to Lisa Marie’s trust, which removed her as co-trustee, is invalid. In the Los Angeles Superior Court document obtained by MarketWatch, Presley states the amendment replaced her and Lisa Marie’s former business manager as co-trustees with her children Riley and Benjamin Keough (the latter of whom died in 2020).
In the court papers, Presley said she was never notified she was being replaced, as was obligated. She also said her name was misspelled, her daughter’s signature was ‘inconsistent’ with her usual autograph and the amendment was not witnessed or notarized.
Estate planning must be meticulous – the Presleys have made that clear. But there are a few simple lessons anyone looking to create or amend an estate plan can learn from the rock and roll royalty family.
Follow the trust rules
Priscilla said she was supposed to be notified if she were replaced as co-trustee, but she never was. The first rule is: follow the rules of the trust, estate attorneys said.
“The trust lays out what the rules are,” said Brian Tully, founder and managing partner of Tully Law Group. “If you’re going to make an amendment, you must follow what the trust says.”
The consequence – whatever last wishes a person had made in an amendment may not happen if the rules aren’t followed exactly. “If a person wants this to be honored, they need to follow the rules,” Tully said.
In this instance, Lisa Marie’s latest amendment allegedly ignored one of the rules of her trust when her mother was not notified she had been replaced as co-trustee.
This is where having a qualified attorney helps. They can spot mistakes and understand legal language and procedures better than the average person so that these important documents are upheld in court.
Update your documents when necessary
The amendment Priscilla is contesting was made in 2016, and named two of Lisa Marie’s children as the new co-trustees. But one of the named children, Benjamin Keough, died four years later.
If a judge deems the amendment valid, what happens next will depend on what the trust specifically says about one co-trustee predeceasing the granter of the trust, Tully said. For example, some trusts have contingency plans, which say there must always be two co-trustees, or if one co-trustee were to die, another named individual would take his place.
Another lesson: Review your documents every three to five years, or when major life events occur, such as a birth, death, marriage or divorce. “It’s not a one-and-done type thing,” said Mitch Mitchell, associate counsel with Trust & Will.
Tread carefully when naming trustees
Deciding who will be trustee to an estate can be difficult, as is having conversations about it.
“It is not uncommon for successors and such to not know they were named,” said David Handler, partner in the trusts and estates practice group of Kirkland & Ellis LLP. Some people may choose not to inform someone of becoming a trustee so that they can avoid arguments or hard feelings if they change their minds years later.
Others want to ask permission to name their loved ones, friends or trusted professionals as a trustee to ensure they feel comfortable and are up for the job. In that case, and if the trust does not require notice to the original trustees, granters may still choose to change the trustee later in life and just not inform them.
Get your paperwork witnessed or notarized – even when you don’t have to
Priscilla’s name being misspelled in the amendment raises questions. “You’re talking about your mom,” Tully said. Assuming there are no medical or intoxication issues, “you should be able to spell your mother’s name.” (And if an attorney drafting the document spelled the name wrong, that also pulls into question what state of mind the granter is in if she signs off on it.) “The fact that it’s spelled wrong muddies the waters,” Tully said.
A witness or notarization can avoid any additional legal hurdles with a misspelled name or a signature that appears inconsistent. Handwriting and signatures naturally change over time, so it’s not necessarily a problem that Lisa Marie’s signature seemed inconsistent with her usual signature as Priscilla said, but having a witness or notary present at signing would dispel any further questions, Mitchell said. The court will likely bring in handwriting experts to study the amendment and determine whether it was actually Lisa Marie’s signature.
Whether a trust document needs notarization varies by state, but it’s “best practice” to get everything witnessed or notarized, Michell said. “If you want your plan to be effective and less likely to be subject to challenge, then even if it’s not a requirement, have a notary or a witness,” he said.