Jamaican Music

Bob Marley among Celebrities Who Died without Leaving a Will

Bob Marley

Jamaican reggae artist Bob Marley passed away in 1981, leaving his wife Rita and 11 children. While his estate went to these family members, the rights to the Marley name took years to settle. Currently, four of his children manage his estate, with Rohan Marley serving as brand officer. The net worth of Marley’s estate has been estimated at $14 million.

While Bob Marley left a legacy of peace, love, and justice, the years following his death have not reflected these elements. His estate has been the subject of many court battles, lawsuits, and fights over money. An example of the ongoing litigation surrounding Marley’s estate is the lawsuit brought against Richard Booker, Bob Marley’s half-brother, by a corporation owned by Rita Marley and nine of his children. Booker operates music festivals and a firm that gives tours of the village where Marley was born and is buried.

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A major target of the lawsuit is the attempt by Booker to trademark the term “Mama Marley” for use in the marketing of goods and services defined as being “fish; fish and chips; fish cakes; fish croquettes; fish fillets; fish mousse; fish sausages …” Rita Marley and the children have taken aggressive control of how Bob Marley’s image, name, and song lyrics can be used for commercial purposes. The reggae artist was believed to have been worth some $30 million at the time of his death, but his Rastafarian faith kept him from making a will as that would mean he recognized his mortality.

The laws governing the estates of people who die without a will were not as favorable his Marley’s widow Rita as some would like. Jamaican law provided for ten percent of his assets to go to his widow, along with the use of another 45 percent of the assets throughout her life. The rest would go to his children, some of whom were born to Rita, while others were not. Marley’s attorney and accountant tried to create an estate plan after Bob Marley died, but there is no legal way to do so under Jamaican law, and so they convinced Rita Marley to forge Bob’s name on several documents and predate them to before his death in order to transfer control over most of his corporate assets and his royalty rights to herself. When this activity was discovered, the attorney and accountant were found guilty of running an illegal and criminal organization involving some $6 million. Rita Marley ultimately confessed to the plan and said she had only acted upon the advice of her attorney. She then lost her role as an administrator with control over the estate.

The fight with Richard Brooks was made possible via a Jamaican Supreme Court ruling in the 1990s that stated Marley’s heirs had the exclusive right to use Bob Marley’s name and image for commercial purposes. This meant that Rita Marley and the children did have the right to profit from his name and image and to sue others from doing so. The question in the Richard Brooks suit is whether this right extends beyond the name “Bob Marley” and applies to “Mama Marley” as well.

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Bob Marley

Observers have questioned whether the legal wrangling is what Bob Marley would have wanted, but as he died without a will, whatever his wishes may have been does not matter, and he has no authority over what happens to his legacy. The Marley experience illustrates how difficult things can be when celebrities pass away without a will.

Other celebrities who have died without leaving a will include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Aretha Franklin, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, and Sonny Bono.

About the author

Stephanie Korney