Losing two generations back to back will strain even the most robust dynastic estate plan. As it is, Carrie Fisher’s daughter may end up making more with a claim on Disney’s insurance policy than the family will inherit from a century of show business.
It’s always tragic when a child’s death forces a family to rework the line of succession, but since Debbie Reynolds died within hours of daughter Carrie Fisher, at least the family lawyers won’t have to worry about any assets moving the wrong generational direction.
Carrie had formal next of kin, daughter Billie Lourd, who inherits the house, the money and presumably the French bulldog even if the outspoken and occasionally erratic actress forgot to leave a valid will behind.
Meanwhile, Debbie’s trust will distribute her money as planned to son Todd Fisher -- Carrie’s little brother -- and granddaughter Billie, as well as any other causes or bequests she cared to make.
From her estate’s perspective, the only thing that changes is that the assets now split two ways instead of three.
It could have been a lot more convoluted and a lot more contentious. But the premature end of Carrie’s career puts $50 million in movie studio life insurance on the table, which raises the financial stakes a lot higher than Old Hollywood usually goes.
Easy come, easy go
Start with Debbie. While she started working in 1950 and kept up the cabaret act until a few years ago, she couldn’t hold onto estimated career earnings of maybe $60 million.
Flawed marriages and arguably worse business choices ate at least $10 million of that money right off the top.
The casino she mortgaged her house to buy with her third husband went bankrupt. So did he when the court ordered him to pay a $12 million divorce settlement.
By 1997, her big earning days were over and she herself ended up filing for bankruptcy. The casino was liquidated to pay its debt.
So far it doesn’t add up to a huge legacy, which is probably why she moved into a mere $1 million bungalow around the turn of the century. The occasional cabaret show could pay the upkeep on three bedrooms.
However, Debbie eventually snatched Molly Brown style paydirt out of disappointment when she gave up on a lifetime crusade to preserve Hollywood memorabilia.
The paperwork unwinding her collection calculated it might bring $11 million at auction -- again, to pay down debt.
Since all those costumes raised well over triple that by the time the last lot sold, Debbie probably died well above solvent after all. Maybe there’s $20 million to $30 million in that trust to split between Billie and her uncle Todd.
It’s not billionaire money, but it’s enough for two households to live fairly comfortably with minimal effort. Todd doesn’t have any kids, so depending on the way the payments are structured, there could be a lot left on “his” side to roll back toward Billie’s sole benefit when he’s gone.
And in the meantime, Billie is almost certainly Carrie Fisher’s primary heir as well. This is where we might see a surprise or two.
Memorabilia and other death benefits
For one thing, the market price of everything associated with the Star Wars princess has tripled in the weeks after her death, following patterns we see with other creative people and “collectible” celebrities.
That aura could well extend to everything left in what’s apparently an overstuffed $14 million Los Angeles property, so whatever the family doesn’t want as a memento could bring serious money in one last round of auctions.
It’s nicely ironic because Carrie never actually managed to cash in on her Star Wars merchandising rights the way more modern stars do.
She signed her Princess Leia image away to Lucasfilm early on, which means that Disney owns it now for use in CGI “appearances” like the recent $440 million Rogue One.
If the studio can profit by putting that likeness on dolls, it can keep the character “alive” well after the performer’s death. In theory, it doesn’t even have to pay her more than a gratuity for redubbing a few lines.
However, the studio still wanted an older Princess Leia for future films. Carrie apparently got a few million dollars appearing in the last one.
Disney apparently had up to $50 million in life insurance to protect itself from having to retool the saga around a dead star.
Counting the house and the paycheck she cashed for recent return to the role, she might have left $25 million in assets behind, so that studio death benefit stacks up huge compared to the estate itself.
It’s unlikely that Disney would pay Carrie’s heir even a few million dollars out of that death benefit, since that would amount to a salary on a film she didn’t actually work on.
Besides, that’s what individual life insurance is for. Maybe Carrie had a policy on herself to protect Billie from the risk that she wouldn’t be able to actually earn out the rest of her career.
It’s a little unlikely that the death benefit would add more than a few million dollars to her ultimate net worth. That’s okay. We all quit working sometime -- on our feet or otherwise.
But if the lawyers aren’t happy with what Carrie left behind, they might try for at least a sympathy cut of Disney’s big payout as a kind of combination PR move and after-the-fact contract negotiation.
Carrie already owns 0.0025% of the profit on the original Star Wars, and by this point it’s safe to say the film has covered its costs. For every $1 million a year it grosses from now on, her estate might cash $200 a month in Hollywood perpetuity.
That quarter point might have already earned her $9 million on the film in her lifetime. We’ll see how much is left behind, but a similar deal on Episode VII might have unlocked another $4 million so far.
Odds are good she wasn’t getting those contract terms. While Carrie evidently wasn’t starving, she definitely wasn’t a billionaire either.
She was old Hollywood royalty like her mother before her: comfortable but not staggeringly wealthy, big enough to aim high but small enough to suffer when a deal backfires.
Let’s see if Billie can make the leap to the new status quo. After all, she’s cast in the upcoming Star Wars installment too, and with the legacy of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher riding on her, she’s already a few steps ahead of the game.