(Forbes) In honor of Alzheimer’s Awareness Month - and the more than five million Americans living with the disease - we highlight our Top 7 Celebrity Estates impacted by Alzheimer’s disease:
1. Rosa Parks
The legendary civil rights icon died at age 92 in 2005, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Her death set off a series of legal battles over her estate that continue to this day, 14 years later.
Rosa Parks’s estate plan left her assets to a charitable institution she created. But her nieces and nephews challenged the validity of her will and trust, due to her mental deficiencies and allegations of undue influence.
That claim was eventually settled, giving the relatives a 20% share of her assets. But that settlement was far from the end. Since then, there have been ongoing fights over broken deals and leaked secrets, claimed mismanagement of her estate and assets, allegations of bribery and corruption, and a lengthy battle over requested sanctions based on Rosa Parks’s missing coat that she wore at the time of her famous arrest at the Alabama bus stop in 1955.
For an iconic lady whose life was marked by grace, dignity, and self-sacrifice for the greater good, it’s especially tragic that her estate and legacy have been tarnished in ways that she never could have imagined.
2. Gene Wilder
The family of the late actor – famed for movies such as Willa Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Blazin’ Saddles – raised awareness about the terrible effects of Alzheimer’s disease after he died in 2016.
Luckily, his widow - his fourth wife, Karen - and his adopted daughter did not fight over Gene Wilder’s estate after he died, a testament to the importance of good estate planning. When someone has Alzheimer’s disease, proper wills, trusts, and powers of attorney are especially important.
Instead of a fight, Wilder makes our list because of how his widow used her husband’s struggle - which she kept private while Gene Wilder was alive - to bring attention to the terrible disease, including allowing his Willa Wonka character to be used in a video campaign to raise awareness.
3. Aaron Spelling
When famed Hollywood producer Aaron Spelling died in 2006, he left behind a reported fortune worth $500 million. His death certificate listed Alzheimer’s disease as a contributing factor.
Despite his mental struggles late in life, Aaron Spelling changed his estate plan just two months before he died, reducing the share to his daughter, actress Tori, and his son, Randy, to $800,000 each.
Tori’s economic struggles were well-publicized in the years that followed. Even though she felt that the reduction in her inheritance was improper, she did not challenge the estate plan in court.
4. Etta James
Legendary blues singer Etta James passed away in 2012, at 73 years of age. Her family reported that she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for several years. Her illness sparked an ugly court fight between her husband of more than 40 years and her son from a prior relationship over the right to make her medical and financial decisions, including control of her $1 million account.
Etta James’s husband, Artis Mills, alleged that the power of attorney Etta had signed appointing her son, Donto James, as decision-maker was invalid because she was incompetent when she signed it. He sued for control of the money to pay for Etta’s care.
After repeated court hearings, Etta James’s leukemia was determined to be fatal, which led to a settlement. Mills was granted conservatorship and permitted to control sums up to $350,000 to pay for Etta’s care for the last few months of her life.
5. Peter Falk
The famous actor who was best known for his role as Lieutenant Columbo, died at age 83 in 2011, after living with Alzheimer’s disease for years. His wife, Shera, and his adopted daughter, Catherine, fought for conservatorship to make his decisions in a heated court battle.
Shera argued that she had power of attorney and could already legally make Peter Falk’s decisions for him, which included banning daughter Catherine from visits. The judge ultimately granted Shera conservatorship, but ordered a visitation schedule for Catherine. Sadly, a doctor who testified at the hearing said that Falk’s memory struggles were so great that he would likely not even remember the visits.
6. Tom Benson
The billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans was the subject of a bitter and drawn-out court battle over control of his NFL and NBA franchises, and hundreds of millions of dollars of other assets.
Prior trusts established by he and his late wife left the sports franchises and other business interests to his daughter and two grandchildren. One of them, Rita LeBlanc, ran the Saints as lead owner until she was fired by her grandfather. Tom Benson opted to take the controlling stock of the teams out of the trust and substitute other assets in their place, taking over control of the teams.
The two sides settled their dispute in 2017, leaving other assets to Rita, her mother and brother, but ultimately leaving Gayle in control of the Saints and Pelicans after Benson’s death in 2018 at age 90.
7. Glenn Campbell
The renowned country singer publicly revealed that he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in 2011, as he embarked on a final “Goodbye Tour.” He died at age 81 in 2017, leaving behind eight children from four marriages, and his widow, Kimberly.
Glenn Campbell’s 2007 estate planning documents cut out three of his adult children, who sued to challenge their disinheritance after he died. In late 2018, they dropped the case, without receiving a settlement. The fact that Campbell’s final will was done a few years before his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was an important factor in the outcome of the lawsuit.
As with the other celebrities on this list, Glenn Campbell’s estate shows how important proper estate planning is - before it’s too late. Wills and trusts that are created or changed after someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or similar conditions are much more likely to be challenged in court, often successfully.