Estate Planning in Pop Culture: Elvis

If you are looking for a good reason to return to a movie theatre post-pandemic, Baz Luhrmann’s new musical biopic about Elvis Presley might be it. The Elvis storyline begins fairly traditionally – a young Elvis is exposed to music as a boy, emotionally changed by it, and his talent is transformed. After a bit of a rocky start on the Southern country music circuit, he becomes a national star.

But, the movie soon progresses in a much more interesting and unique direction as it focuses on the strange and often manipulative relationship Elvis had with his longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks). Over more than 20 years of Elvis’s career, Parker manipulated, exploited, and financially abused Elvis, encouraged his drug habits, and ultimately may have been responsible for his early death.

In on-screen text, at the end of the movie, we learn that even after Elvis’s death, Parker continued to exploit Elvis’s Estate. Unaware of the nature of his exploits, Vernon Presley, Elvis’s father and the Estate Executor, and Priscilla Presley continue the relationship with Parker. It was not until 1980 that lawsuits revealed the extent of Parker’s financial abuse.

In fact, it was Lisa Marie Presley’s guardian ad litem who brought attention to Parker’s abuse and unethical behavior and demanded a court investigation on her behalf. A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a court appointed person – typically an attorney – who represents and protect the interests of a minor child in an estate or trust administration, or other legal matter. In Massachusetts, if a minor child is an heir, devisee or interested person in an estate or trust, Massachusetts law requires the appointment of a GAL to represent the child’s interest. Sometimes that legal requirement can be waived if there is a surviving parent (or other legal guardian) who the court determines can satisfactorily represent the child’s interest without a GAL.

Lisa Marie was the sole heir of Elvis’s estate. At the time of his death, she was 9 years old. Thus, a Tennessee court appointed a Memphis attorney to serve as Lisa Marie’s GAL to represent her interests. The GAL’s investigations into the business practices of Elvis Presley Enterprises and Parker’s relationship with Elvis and his Estate led to discovery of Parker’s financial abuse and unethical behavior. Those investigations ultimately led to a settlement with Parker and the end of the Estate’s relationship with him.