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Presleys Fight Over His Estate

As a rabid Elvis fan, this is tough to stomach. I leave you with one of my fav clips.

Presleys Fight Over His Estate

After the death of Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’s ex-wife initiated a legal battle with her granddaughter over control of the family trust.

Matt Stevens

By Matt Stevens, NY Times

Updated March 10, 2023

When the camera panned to Priscilla Presley and her daughter, Lisa Marie, they appeared enraptured.

Austin Butler had rekindled the good memories of Elvis with his portrayal in a lauded biopic. And for a few magical minutes on that January evening, Butler was there, on the stage at the Golden Globes, conjuring the voice and radiating the charm of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll as he accepted a best actor award.

Lisa Marie clasped her hands around her mouth. Priscilla placed her hand on her heart. Mother and daughter had had their run-ins over the years, but they were together again — nestled at a table, like family.

“One of the greatest nights of my career,” said Jerry Schilling, a Presley family friend and business associate who escorted Lisa Marie that evening.

But days later, the sadness that has long trailed the family had again taken hold. Lisa Marie, only 54, died suddenly. Within weeks, Priscilla, who had long helped administer Elvis’s estate, went to court to challenge the validity of documents that say her granddaughter, the actress Riley Keough, is now the sole trustee.

The dispute got underway just as Keough prepared for the release of the new Amazon Prime Video series “Daisy Jones & the Six,” in which she stars. It is unclear what acrimony may arise as the litigation unfolds, but Keough stayed conspicuously quiet when her grandmother urged the public not to view it as a family fight. Keough’s lawyers have yet to file court papers in response.

Riley Keough, who stars as Daisy Jones in a new Amazon Prime series, has not responded to her grandmother’s decision to challenge her standing as the sole trustee of the family trust.Credit...Lacey Terrell/Amazon Prime Video

Reaction has been swift, though, at Graceland, Elvis’s former home in Memphis, where emotions over the Presley family run high. Lisa Marie Bailey, a visitor named after Elvis’s only child, said last weekend that she supported Keough.

If the King knew what was happening, she said, standing near where Elvis is buried, “he would be turning over in his grave.”

The latest Presley family dust-up echoes the messiness that marked Elvis’s life, which, beyond the hit records and Hollywood films, was filled with its share of public dramas, including divorce, profligate spending and, late in life, a struggle with drug addiction.

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Despite those troubles, the Elvis brand today continues to take in more than $100 million a year as the licensing juggernaut behind apparel, pink Cadillac plush toys and tickets to tour Graceland. But the family trust receives only a fraction of its proceeds, according to court filings that detail its earnings.

In 2005, Lisa Marie and her business manager sold off 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises for roughly $97 million in cash, stock and debt relief, according to court documents — funds that have since been nearly depleted. Still, last year, before her death, Elvis’s daughter drew an income of $1.25 million from the trust, which continues to be worth tens of millions of dollars, according to financial filings. The beneficiaries are now Keough and her two younger half sisters.

This weekend, the curious are likely to search for Keough and Priscilla at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, where Butler is a strong contender for the best actor Oscar.

The family today owns only 15 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which operates Elvis’s former home Graceland, a major draw for fans. Credit...Brandon Dill/Associated Press

Success and excess in the house of Elvis

When Elvis died unexpectedly in 1977, his estate was worth roughly $5 million. His spending had drained his earnings, which had long been limited by his business arrangement with his longtime manager, Col. Tom Parker. He received as much as half of the King’s income, including roughly half the $5.4 million fee that RCA Records paid in 1973 when Presley gave up future royalty rights from sales of recordings he had made, which included the majority of his hits.

The money that remained was left in a trust and, after several family members died, Lisa Marie, emerged as its sole beneficiary. Priscilla, who divorced Elvis four years before his death, became a trustee and eventually engineered an overhaul of the estate, turning it into a moneymaker, in part by opening Graceland to the public in 1982.

It was a painful but necessary tactic — “like being robbed,” Priscilla said later of watching strangers enter the home. The Los Angeles Times estimated in 1989 that the value of the estate had climbed to more than $75 million and that Elvis Presley Enterprises was bringing in an estimated $15 million a year in gross income.

The assets grew to more than $100 million by 2005, according to court documents. By that time, they had been moved into a new vehicle, the Promenade Trust, established by Lisa Marie in 1993. She was its beneficiary; her mother and Barry Siegel, the family’s business manager, served as trustees.

Then began what Lisa Marie’s lawyers have called her “11-year odyssey to financial ruin.”

Siegel and Lisa Marie would later trade accusations over who was to blame for her precipitous financial decline. In a 2018 court fight, which was eventually settled, Siegel contended that, though the trust received millions of dollars in annual income, “Lisa’s continuous, excessive spending and reliance on credit” drove it into significant debt.

In 2005, as the bills mounted, Lisa Marie and Siegel engineered the sale of 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises to a group led by the investor Robert F.X. Sillerman.

The deal paid about $50 million in cash. The trust also received $25 million in stock in Sillerman’s entertainment company, CKX, and $22 million in debt relief, according to court documents. The trust kept the remaining 15 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises and the main Graceland house, appraised at $5.6 million in 2021.

In 2013, Sillerman sold Elvis Presley Enterprises to Authentic Brands Group in partnership with Joel Weinshanker, who now operates Graceland. Three years later, Sillerman’s company declared bankruptcy, rendering Lisa Marie’s CKX stock almost worthless, according to court documents.

And by that time, the $50 million in cash that Lisa Marie’s trust had received was also largely gone, spent on things like a $9 million home in England. In her court papers, Lisa Marie blamed Siegel for allowing that purchase and said he had enriched himself with exorbitant fees and failed to alert her to how dire the financial situation had become.

By 2016, her lawsuit said, the trust “was left with $14,000 in cash and over $500,000 in credit card debt.”

Siegel’s lawyers were blunt in their 2018 cross complaint, which denied their client was responsible for the diminished assets. “Sadly, since inheriting her father’s estate in 1993, Lisa has twice squandered it,” they wrote. “She now has only herself to blame for her financial and personal misfortunes.”

Meanwhile, Elvis Presley Enterprises was churning along. Last year, it pulled in $110 million, at least $80 million of which was generated by operations at Graceland. Another $5 million came from the sale of the rights for the Baz Luhrmann biopic, according to Forbes, whose estimates were confirmed by two people with knowledge of the company’s finances.

In addition to the $1.25 million she got last year from the trust, Lisa Marie received a monthly salary of roughly $4,300 as an employee of Graceland, according to a financial filing she made last year. It also listed roughly $95,000 in liquid assets, $715,000 in stocks and bonds, and debts that exceeded $3 million.

Though it’s surrounded now by a hotel and other amenities, Graceland is largely the same home Elvis bought in 1957, at 22, and lived in for two decades. The large, once bustling kitchen remains, as does the pool room and the jungle room, with its waterfall and carved wooden furniture.

The audio tour offers visitors a glimpse of Presley family life.

“Today, Lisa Marie and her family still have dinner around this table when they’re in town,” the audio intones during a stop in the dining room, where Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding china is displayed on a table near a portrait of Priscilla and a young Lisa Marie.

The relationship between mother and daughter had become strained in recent years, according to people close to the family who requested anonymity to describe intimate Presley matters. One family confidante said Lisa Marie became particularly upset in 2016 when she filed to divorce her fourth husband, Michael Lockwood, and felt her mother was siding with Lockwood in the dispute.

Still, they sat together at the Golden Globes.

Schilling, who escorted Lisa Marie that night, declined to discuss Presley family matters. But he said the celebration of the “Elvis” film and the King’s legacy had been something of a salve for Lisa Marie, helping her “come out a little bit” after a difficult period. Her son, Benjamin Keough, died by suicide in 2020.

On Jan. 26, two weeks after Lisa Marie’s death, Priscilla filed papers in Superior Court in Los Angeles challenging a 2016 amendment to the trust purportedly authorized by Lisa Marie. That amendment had removed Priscilla and Siegel as trustees. It had also designated Riley Keough and Benjamin, her brother, as co-trustees in the event of Lisa Marie’s death.

Siegel had acknowledged receiving notice of his removal as trustee during his 2018 court battle with Lisa Marie. But Priscilla’s lawyers argued that the amendment was invalid, saying that it had never been delivered to her during Lisa Marie’s lifetime as required under the language of the trust. They also argued that the amendment was potentially fraudulent, asserting that Lisa Marie’s signature was “inconsistent” with her usual penmanship. Priscilla asked the court to recognize her as a trustee.

Discord in the Presley family appears to have grown since the death of Lisa Marie, left, in January. She is shown with her mother, center, and daughter, Riley, at an event in Los Angeles last year.Credit...Jordan Strauss/Invision, via Associated Press

A spokeswoman for Priscilla did not respond to requests for comment on her motivations for the court challenge. But Priscilla, in a statement last month, asked the public to “allow us the time we need to work together and sort this out,” imploring fans to “ignore ‘the noise.’”

Keough’s representative declined to comment on the estate matters.

Weinshanker, the managing partner of Graceland, also declined to comment but has said since Lisa Marie’s death that he believed it was her intention to have Keough and her brother run the trust.

“There was never a question in her mind that they would be the stewards,” he told Sirius XM’s Elvis Radio, “that they would look at it the exact same way that she did. And obviously when Ben passed, it really sat with Riley.”

In Memphis last weekend, people touring Graceland said they had been closely watching the dispute unfold. Many have been Elvis fans for their entire lives and have grown accustomed to Presley family drama. Still, some worried that the schism might lead to Graceland’s being sold.

Kristie Gustafson, 54, said she grew up listening to Elvis’s music with her mother. “I’m a very family-oriented person, so I would say it’s very important to keep it in the family,” she said, beginning to tear up.

“Family,” she said, “is everything.”

Nicole Sperling contributed reporting from Los Angeles, Jessica Jaglois contributed reporting from Memphis and Ben Sisario contributed reporting from New York. Sheelagh McNeill and Jack Begg contributed research.

A correction was made on March 9, 2023: An earlier version of this article misstated Riley Keough’s family relationship to two younger siblings. They are half sisters, not stepsisters.

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