As a Film Revives Elvis’s Legacy, the Presleys Fight Over His Estate

As a Film Revives Elvis’s Legacy, the Presleys Fight Over His Estate


When the camera panned to Priscilla Presley and her daughter, Lisa Marie, they appeared enraptured.

Austin Butler had rekindled the good memories of Elvis with his portrayal in a lauded biopic. And for a few magical minutes on that January evening, Butler was there, on the stage at the Golden Globes, conjuring the voice and radiating the charm of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll as he accepted a best actor award.

Lisa Marie clasped her hands around her mouth. Priscilla placed her hand on her heart. Mother and daughter had had their run-ins over the years, but they were together again — nestled at a table, like family.

“One of the greatest nights of my career,” said Jerry Schilling, a Presley family friend and business associate who escorted Lisa Marie that evening.

But just days later, the sadness that has long trailed the family had again taken hold. Lisa Marie, only 54, died suddenly. Within weeks, Priscilla, who had long helped administer Elvis’s estate, went to court to challenge the validity of documents that say her granddaughter, the actress Riley Keough, is now the sole trustee.

The dispute got underway just as Keough was preparing for the release of the new Amazon Prime Video series “Daisy Jones & the Six,” in which her starring role has earned strong reviews. It is unclear what level of acrimony is likely to arise as the litigation unfolds, but Keough stayed conspicuously quiet when her grandmother urged the public not to view it as a family fight. Keough’s lawyers have yet to file court papers in response.

Reaction has been swift, though, at Graceland, Elvis’s former home in Memphis, where emotions over any Presley family dispute run high. Lisa Marie Bailey, a visitor named after Elvis’s only child, said last weekend that she supported Keough.

If the King knew what was happening, she said, standing near where Elvis is buried, “he would be turning over in his grave.”

The latest Presley family dust-up echoes the messiness that marked Elvis’s life, which, beyond the hit records and Hollywood films, was filled with its own share of public dramas, including divorce, profligate spending, strained relationships and, late in life, a struggle with drug addiction.

Despite those troubles, the Elvis brand today continues to take in more than $100 million a year as the licensing juggernaut behind apparel, pink Cadillac plush toys and tickets to tour Graceland. But the family trust receives only a fraction of its proceeds, according to court filings that detail its earnings.

In 2005, Lisa Marie and her business manager sold off 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises for roughly $97 million in cash, stock and debt relief, according to court documents — funds that have since been nearly depleted. Still, last year, before her death, Elvis’s daughter drew an income of $1.25 million from the trust, which continues to be worth tens of millions of dollars, according to financial filings. The beneficiaries are now Keough and her two younger half sisters.

This weekend, the curious are likely to be searching for Keough and Priscilla at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, where Butler is a strong contender for the best actor Oscar.

Neither camp would comment on whether the women plan to attend.

Success and excess in the house of Elvis

When Elvis died unexpectedly in 1977, his estate was estimated to be worth roughly $5 million. His spending had drained his earnings, which had long been limited by his business arrangement with his longtime manager, Col. Tom Parker. He received as much as half of the King’s income, including roughly half the $5.4 million fee that RCA Records paid in 1973 when Presley gave up future royalty rights from sales of recordings he had made, which included the majority of his hits.

The money that remained was left in a trust and, after several family members died, Lisa Marie, his only child, emerged as its sole beneficiary. Priscilla, who divorced Elvis four years before his death, became a trustee and eventually engineered an overhaul of the estate, turning it into a moneymaker, in part by opening Graceland to the public in 1982.

It was a painful but necessary tactic — “like being robbed,” Priscilla said later of watching strangers enter her family home. The Los Angeles Times estimated in 1989 that the value of the estate had climbed to more than $75 million and that Elvis Presley Enterprises was bringing in an estimated $15 million a year in gross income.

The assets continued to grow, reaching more than $100 million in 2005, according to court documents filed by Lisa Marie. By that time, they had been moved into a new vehicle, the Promenade Trust, established by Lisa Marie in 1993. She was its beneficiary; her mother and Barry Siegel, the family’s business manager, served as trustees.

That was the beginning of what Lisa Marie’s lawyers have called her “11-year odyssey to financial ruin.”

Siegel and Lisa Marie would later trade accusations over who was to blame for her precipitous financial decline. In a 2018 court fight, which was eventually settled, Siegel contended that, though the trust received millions of dollars in annual income, “Lisa’s continuous, excessive spending and reliance on credit” eventually drove it into significant debt.

It was at this point in 2005, as she faced mounting bills, that Lisa Marie and Siegel engineered the sale of 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2005 to a group led by the investor Robert F. X. Sillerman.

The deal paid about $50 million in cash. The Promenade Trust also received $25 million in stock in Sillerman’s entertainment company, CKX, and $22 million in debt relief, according to court documents. The Presley family trust kept the remaining 15 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises and the main Graceland house, appraised at $5.6 million in 2021. The trust leased the house and its core artifacts to Elvis Presley Enterprises under a long-term agreement.

In 2013, Sillerman sold Elvis Presley Enterprises to Authentic Brands Group in partnership with Joel Weinshanker, who now operates Graceland. Three years later, Sillerman’s company declared bankruptcy, rendering Lisa Marie’s CKX stock almost worthless, according to court documents.

And by that time, the $50 million in cash that Lisa Marie’s trust had received was also largely gone, spent on things like a $9 million home in England. In her court papers, Lisa Marie blamed Siegel for allowing that purchase and said he had enriched himself with exorbitant fees and failed to alert her to how dire the financial situation had become.

“By 2016, Siegel had liquidated almost all of the Trust’s remaining principal,” her lawsuit said. “The Trust was left with $14,000 in cash and over $500,000 in credit card debt.”

Meanwhile, Elvis Presley Enterprises was still churning along. Last year, it pulled in $110 million, at least $80 million of which was generated by operations at Graceland, and $5 million of which came from the sale of the rights for the Baz Luhrmann biopic, according to estimates reported by Forbes that were confirmed by two people with knowledge of the company’s finances.

In addition to the $1.25 million she got last year from the trust, Lisa Marie reported receiving a monthly salary of roughly $4,300 as an employee of Graceland, according to a financial filing. (In her 2018 lawsuit against Siegel, Lisa Marie’s lawyers complained that Priscilla had, for years, been paid a $900,000 annual salary by Elvis Presley Enterprises.)

In the financial filing, Lisa Marie also reported having roughly $95,000 in liquid assets, $715,000 in stocks and bonds, and debts that exceeded $3 million.

Siegel’s lawyers were blunt in describing why their client was not responsible for the diminished assets. “Sadly, since inheriting her father’s estate in 1993, Lisa has twice squandered it,” they wrote in Siegel’s 2018 cross complaint. “She now has only herself to blame for her financial and personal misfortunes.”

‘Family is everything’

Though it’s surrounded now by a hotel and other amenities, Graceland is largely the same home Elvis bought in 1957, at 22, and lived in for two decades. The large, once bustling kitchen remains, as does the pool room and the jungle room, with its waterfall and carved wooden furniture.

The tour there is designed to offer visitors a glimpse of a treasured family home, and the audio portion, narrated by the actor John Stamos, is filled with memories recounted by Lisa Marie and Priscilla.

“Today, Lisa Marie and her family still have dinner around this table when they’re in town,” Stamos says during a stop in the dining room, where Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding china is displayed on a table near a portrait of Priscilla and a young Lisa Marie.

But the relationship between mother and daughter had become strained in recent years, according to people close to the family who requested anonymity to describe intimate Presley matters. It plummeted to a low point in 2016, one family confidante said, when Lisa Marie initiated divorce proceedings against her fourth husband, Michael Lockwood, and felt that her mother was siding with Lockwood in the dispute.

Still, they sat together at the Golden Globes.

Schilling, who escorted Lisa Marie that night, declined to discuss Presley family matters. But he said the celebration of the “Elvis” film and the King’s legacy had been something of a salve for Lisa Marie, helping her “come out a little bit” after a difficult period. Her son, Benjamin Keough, died by suicide in 2020.

On Jan. 26, two weeks after Lisa Marie’s death, Priscilla filed papers in Superior Court in Los Angeles challenging a 2016 amendment to the trust purportedly authorized by Lisa Marie. That amendment had removed Priscilla and Siegel as trustees. It had also designated Riley Keough and Benjamin, her brother, as co-trustees in the event of Lisa Marie’s death.

Siegel acknowledged receiving notice of his removal as trustee in papers filed as part of his 2018 court fight with Lisa Maria. But Priscilla’s lawyers argue in their filing that the amendment was invalid for a number of reasons, including the assertion that it had never been delivered to her during Lisa Marie’s lifetime as required under the language of the trust. They also argued that the amendment was potentially fraudulent, noting, among other things, that Lisa Marie’s signature appeared to be “inconsistent” with her usual penmanship. Priscilla asked the court to recognize her as a trustee.

Trustees can be compensated for their work, but it is unclear whether Priscilla ever received any fees as a trustee. A spokeswoman for Priscilla did not respond to requests for comment.

But Priscilla issued a statement last month that asked the public to “allow us the time we need to work together and sort this out,” imploring fans to “ignore ‘the noise.’”

Keough’s representative declined to comment on the estate matters.

Weinshanker, the managing partner of Graceland, declined to comment but has said since Lisa Marie’s death that he believed it was her intention to have Keough and her brother run the trust.

“There was never a question in her mind that they would be the stewards,” he told Sirius XM’s Elvis Radio, “that they would look at it the exact same way that she did. And obviously when Ben passed, it really sat with Riley.”

A hearing in the case has been scheduled in Los Angeles for April 13.

In Memphis last weekend, people touring Graceland said they had been closely watching the dispute unfold. Many have been Elvis fans for their entire lives and have grown accustomed to Presley family drama. Still, some worried that the family schism could eventually lead to Graceland’s being sold.

Kristie Gustafson, 54, of Wisconsin grew up listening to Elvis’s music with her mother, who also loved the King. “I’m a very family-oriented person, so I would say it’s very important to keep it in the family,” she said, beginning to tear up.

“Family,” she said, “is everything.”

Nicole Sperling contributed reporting from Los Angeles, Jessica Jaglois contributed reporting from Memphis and Ben Sisario contributed reporting from New York. Sheelagh McNeill and Jack Begg contributed research.

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