The truth may never be known, but nearly four decades after the fact, the biggest consequences left on the table revolve around the money she left behind.
As the surviving witnesses to Natalie Wood’s 1981 death come forward to change their stories, her sometime husband Robert Wagner is once again “a person of interest.”
Wagner just turned 88. He’s remarried and occasionally still working in television. Few Los Angeles crime watchers seriously think he’ll ever go to trial at this point or even be formally charged.
After all, even if he’s actually guilty, there isn’t a lot the state can do to him. Life without parole would be unlikely to last long at his age and under California sentencing rules death row is off the table here.
But the liabilities are a little more tangible when it comes to weighing the impact Wood’s death had on Wagner’s current net worth. And if this gets serious, the complications could bend known rules of inheritance.
The slayer rule would apply
Her will named him executor and trustee of the funds she left her daughters as well as heir to half her estate.
It was straightforward and even sensible at the time — Wagner and Wood were married and had a blended family of three children, and the trust structure allowed Wood to pass on her wealth without tax drag.
Since California is one of the states that prohibits anyone who participates in a felonious murder to profit from the victim’s estate, Wagner should’ve been locked out of Wood’s assets if we finally find out that foul play took place on that boat back in 1981.
When the slayer statute kicks in, it overrides the will. The trusts were created when she died, so an argument can be made that beneficiary assignments would be thrown out too.
After all, the very existence of those trusts depended on her death. No death, no trusts. No trusts, no beneficiary. Someone who killed her would forfeit their right to benefit from the trust.
However, it’s been 36 years since the will went through probate. Needless to say, that’s an unusually long time to claw back assets if the Los Angeles sheriff really does have compelling new evidence that Wagner was involved.
There’s no statute of limitations on murder, but I’m not finding a lot of precedent for the slayer statute applying to crimes that go back this far. The legitimate heirs would need to sue to prevent unjust enrichment, establishing a “debt” that would need to be collected within a relatively brief time period.
With the investigation dormant for so long, there was technically no crime and therefore no lawsuit to file within the normal time limit.
At this point, the other heirs — the daughters — are adults who have already received their share of the estate. Whether they’d even want to force their dad to give up his half is an open question.
After all, he’s 88. Odds are good a little patience would balance the financial scales without dragging the entire family into an expensive court fight.
Is the money still there?
There may not even be much of Wood’s money left. She was a superstar by Old Hollywood standards but even so, fortunes scaled much differently back then.
Her estate was widely reported as being worth “millions” when she died. But from the language defining how the beneficiaries would split the assets, we might be looking at a reasonable ceiling of $2 million here.
That’s more than enough to justify the sizes of the bequests that are spelled out — if anything, the numbers feel like a more natural fit for an overall estate sized a little below $1 million.
Clearly the world ran on a very different scale in the early 1980s. Back then, the estate tax exemption kicked in at what would now seem like an insanely low $175,000 and took 70% of everything above that level.
Wood might have left very little money behind by modern standards and still been considered extremely wealthy at the time.
Either way, the dollar amounts might not amount to enough to pay the lawyers to reclaim today. If Wagner were convicted or the girls simply felt strongly enough, he could probably write them a check from his TV appearances and call it even.
Once again, they stand to inherit from him either way, provided his will makes room for them.
Wagner’s current wife Jill St. John has the right to claim community property outright. That doesn’t include the money Wagner inherited from Wood — fairly or unfairly, depending on how the investigation goes — but there’s no guarantee the will passes that inheritance back to the girls.
Natasha Gregson Wagner has never blamed her stepdad for her mom’s death. She’s an established actress with a Hollywood husband of her own, so she probably doesn’t really need an extra couple of hundred thousand dollars.
Courtney has also established herself as a jewelry designer but has a cloudier past. While she’s unlikely to lash out at dad in order to claw back a piece of inheritance, stranger things have happened.
Katie Wagner has built a career as a TV gossip reporter in her own right. She only knew Wood as her stepmom and only inherited a lump $50,000 from her estate. There’s little motive or opportunity to try to claw back more if Wagner’s share is overturned.
And once you move past the kids, it’s hard to find a scenario where someone feels cheated by Wagner benefiting from Wood’s estate. While her mother survived her, both parents are dead now. Her sisters received lump sums, so their inheritance was always limited.
Maybe if there were New Hollywood mega-millions at stake, the calculus would be different. But here, Wood’s bequests have already done their job to enrich her loved ones’ lives.
Too much time has gone by and the family has done the best it could to move on. While their saga could theoretically create new precedent if there’s new and damning evidence on the table, I doubt we’ll see it reach that stage.