The Unintended Beneficiary of Marilyn Monroe’s $100M+Estate

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Capitalizing on Glamour

Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson, was born on June 1, 1926, and she died at the age of 36 on August 5, 1962. Her death was ruled a probable suicide due to a drug overdose. Monroe was found dead in her home in Brentwood, Los Angeles with a high level of barbiturates in her system. Various conspiracy theories have sprung up over the years, from accidental overdose to foul play involving political figures. These theories have further complicated the narrative around Monroe's legacy, casting a dark shadow over her glittering image.

Monroe died testate (with a Will), with an estate valued at smaller than what you'd expect, being approximately $800,000, or about $7.5M today. Monroe’s Will names two primary beneficiaries: 25% of the residue to her New York psychiatrist, who had committed Monroe, albeit briefly, to New York Payne Whitney Clinic for anxiety, depression, and insomnia. This New York psychiatrist was to establish a charitable foundation for mentally ill children. The remaining 75% was to go to her acting coach and mentor Lee Strasberg. The bond that Monroe and Strasberg apparently shared was strong, so it wasn't surprising Monroe chose Strasberg as the primary beneficiary of her Will. 

Note to any doctor examining me: If you commit me to a mental institution, you will not be sharing in my estate. Ever.

At Monroe’s death, her estate was comprised of several assets, being her house in Brentwood, Los Angeles, her personal belongings like clothing, jewelry, furniture, and ultimately and most valuable, unsecured intellectual property rights relating to her likeness and signature, none of which had been formally trademarked or copyrighted at the time of her death. 

So, Strasberg got 75% of the residue of Monroe’s estate. From what I’ve read, that was not unusual. It’s what happened 20+ years later that is the reason for this article. 

Strasberg died in 1982. As Monroe gifted Strasberg the 75% of the residue of her Estate (which would have included the intellectual property rights) Strasberg was free to prepare his own Will, and provide for his beneficiaries as he saw fit.  Strasberg's beneficiary of his estate was Anna Strasberg, his third wife, and whom Marilyn Monroe had never met (or maybe had met once). Through Strasberg’s Estate, Anna Strasberg now controlled Monroe’s estate, and she then went to work on securing licensing rights. Apparently – it’s been quite successful to license Monroe’s image over the decades. The primary beneficiary of that success was ... Anna.

This is not to cast judgment on whether this is appropriate or inappropriate – it’s to appreciate that your Will is a document that activates only on your death, and survives beyond your life to give instruction as to your intentions. While Monroe might have envisioned her fortune helping those in need, or even the needs of her family, her estate ended up in the hands of a person she may never have met, or met only once. For some of us, looking past the lives of our beneficiaries is necessary when philanthropic interests and the public good remain a priority, especially after our beneficiaries have passed. Outright distribution of your estate comes with potentially significant and unintended consequences.