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Elvis Presley's Estate Was Nearly Bankrupt but His Ex-wife Priscilla Turned It Around

Manuela Cardiga
Mar 11, 2020
01:00 P.M.
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Elvis Presley's finances were in a sorry state when he passed away, and his ex-wife took charge of the estate for their daughter, Lisa Marie.

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Elvis Presley passed away at the age of 42 from a combination of a heart condition and a reaction to prescription drugs. 

The King of Rock and Roll left a will, in which his only child Lisa Marie Presley was his sole heir. But Presley's once-large estate was depleted by his extravagance and deep in debt.

Lisa Marie has proved to be as profligate a spender as her late father.

Singer Elvis Presley poses for a studio portrait circa 1964 | Source: Getty Images

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A RUINOUS INHERITANCE

The estate little Lisa Marie inherited was worth less than $5 million, and the IRS imposed a $10 million estate tax - double what the estate actually had.

While Presley was alive, he easily solved his cash flow problems by scheduling a tour, and the money would pour in until his free-spending ways brought him once again to the edge of insolvency.

Elvis Presley, with his wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa-Marie circa 1970 | Source: Getty Images

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Such a solution was out of reach of the estate trustees, Presley's ex-wife Priscilla Presley, and his father Vernon Presley. It has been estimated that Presley had earned hundreds of millions of dollars during his life, and by 1977, very little was left.

Elvis Presley performs in concert at the Milwaukee Arena on April 27, l977, just months before his death | Source: Getty Images

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PRISCILLA PRESLEY'S PLAN

Faced with the dire situation of the Presley estate, Priscilla founded Elvis Presley Enterprises to manage the rights to Presley's image, and the few royalties that he had retained. Priscilla decided to make the Elvis Presley brand profitable.

Entrance to Elvis Presley's home, Graceland | Source: Wikimedia

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OPENING GRACELAND 

Priscilla started by opening Presley's legendary mansion, Graceland, to the public as a museum in 1982. Graceland soon became the second most visited site in the US after the White House, with an estimated 600,000 visitors a year.

Priscilla Presley in 2006, when Graceland mansion was designated as a National Historic Landmark | Source: Wikimedia

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Devoted fans of the King were more than willing to pay to be able to visit the plush interior of the home he had lived in, see the bed he slept in, his games room, and his pool. Money poured in and enriched the cash-starved estate. 

Elvis Presley's pool table in Graceland Mansion, Memphis Tennessee | Source: Wikimedia

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MERCHANDISING THE KING'S IMAGE

Priscilla made sure that the use of Elvis Presley's image on memorabilia, T-shirts, and various other merchandising products adhered to trademark and image rights laws, which meant greater profits for the estate.

Elvis Presley's grave in Graceland, Memphis Tennessee | Source: Flickr

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By 1993, the estate was worth $100 million and would continue to earn $40 to $50 million a year. At that time Lisa Marie turned 25, and according to her father's will, could take possession of his fortune.

Lisa Marie Presley and mother, actress Priscilla Presley, both wearing Elvis-style black leather jackets | Source: Getty Images

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LISA MARIE PRESLEY TAKES CHARGE

For the following 10 years, Lisa Marie maintained the status quo, having created a living Trust and appointed trustees to manage it. In 2003, she appointed Barry Siegel and placed him in charge of the estate. It was a grievous mistake.

Marie Presley at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the grand opening of "Graceland Presents ELVIS: The Exhibition - The Show - The Experience" in Las Vegas in 2015 | Source: Getty Images

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SELLING EPE

Under Siegel's management, the trust sold 85% of its interests in EPE, worth an estimated $100 million. The sale brought Lisa-Marie a mere $40 million after taxes, less than half of what the share of EPE was actually worth.

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THE ELVIS ESTATE BANKRUPT

In 2015, Lisa Marie sued Siegel, accusing him of allowing her to spend the Trust's capital at the rate of $39 million dollars in four years. At the time of  Siegel's removal as trustee, the Trust held $14,000 cash and owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes.

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PRISCILLA PRESLEY TO THE RESCUE

Sadly, the health Trust which Priscilla had salvaged for her daughter had been frittered away. Lisa Marie had proved to be as profligate a spender as her late father - but less able to generate money.

Priscilla is reported to have sold her Los Angeles mansion for $3.8 million in 2019, in order to help her daughter. Lisa Marie has declared that she had a burden of debt of $16.7 million.

Priscilla has an estimated net worth of over $100 million, but she also has another child, son Navarone Garibaldi, now 33, and is unlikely to pour cash into her spendthrift daughter's hands. 

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