Priscilla Presley’s Challenge to daughter Lisa Marie’s Living Trust

At just nine years old, Priscilla Presley became one of three heirs to her father’s estate when Elvis Presley passed away in 1977. Three years later, after the passing of her grandfather, Vernon, and great-grandmother, Minnie, she became the sole heir. For years, the estate was held in a trust for Lisa Marie — initially set up by her father — and, in 1993, she transferred the estate into a revocable living trust.

Often used as a tool to bypass probate, a revocable living trust is intended to provide a simpler transfer of an estate’s assets to a decedent’s heirs. After her death in January 2023, though, Lisa Marie’s mother Priscilla filed a petition regarding her daughter’s trust.

In the following conversation, UW Law Professor Karen Boxx provides background on this matter and answers questions surrounding Priscilla’s petition.

UW Law: Can you tell us why Priscilla Presley is challenging her daughter Lisa Marie Presley's living trust?

Karen Boxx [KB]: I wouldn't characterize it as a challenge to Lisa Marie's trust and I would explain it with a little bit of background. When Elvis Presley died, he left the bulk of his estate to his daughter — Lisa Marie — in a trust. When the trust was to end, all the property would be distributed to Lisa Marie at a fairly early age, sometime in her 20s, I believe. When the trust ended, however, Lisa Marie chose to take the property and put it back into a trust that she created. In doing so, she retained the power to revoke or amend this trust. She's in control of it, but someone else is managing her money and presumably her mother Priscilla was one of the trustees.

In 2010, Lisa Marie amended the trust, probably because at that point she had children and wanted to put in provisions for them. She continued to name her mother Priscilla and her business manager as co-trustees.

After Lisa Marie's death, according to the petition, Priscilla became aware of an amendment to the trust from 2016. My understanding is that it did one thing: it fired Priscilla and the business manager as trustees and said Lisa Marie would now be the trustee. Then, when Lisa Marie died, Riley Keough, Lisa Marie’s daughter, would take over as sole trustee.

According to the petition, Priscilla had never seen this 2016 amendment. If she was fired in 2016, apparently no one told her, and she had continued to act as the trustee all this time. She received this document after Lisa Marie's death and is asking the court to clarify if this 2016 amendment is valid. There's a requirement in the trust that the amendment be delivered during Lisa Marie’s lifetime to the trustee for it to be effective, but that didn't happen.

There are other problems with this document: it's a copy, they don't have the original. There's a lot of fishy stuff about the signature, it looks weird, and Priscilla's name is misspelled. She is asking for clarification from the court that this 2016 document is of no effect and that she continues as trustee.

UW Law: What will happen if it is found that the 2016 amendment is invalid?

KB: Priscilla and Riley would now be the co-trustees of the trust, which is held for the benefit of Riley and her two half siblings.

UW Law: If it is found to be valid, then only Lisa Marie’s daughter Riley Keough will be the trustee, and not Priscilla?

KB: Correct.

UW Law: Lisa Marie Presley used a living trust as opposed to a will for estate planning purposes. How does a living trust differ from a will?

KB: To use Lisa Marie's planning as an example, she initially set up this trust as a lifetime planning device, because she didn't want to manage her money by herself as a young person. But with a living trust, generally, you put all your property into this trust, and name a trustee. The trust will likely say, “When I die, all the assets in the trust will go to my children.”

All the money in the trust was used for Lisa Marie's benefit while she was alive. When she died, however, it was passed to her children. I don't know this, for sure, but presumably the bulk of Lisa Marie's property was in this trust.

If she hadn't set up this trust when she was young and instead kept the assets in her name, then she would need a will to say, “When I die, my assets go to my children.” And so that will work because it's just in Lisa Marie's name, instead of in the name of the trust. Then, however, we need some court proceeding of probate to effectuate that transfer.

UW Law: What other legal maneuvers could Priscilla personally take if this challenge is unsuccessful?

KB: I don't know that Priscilla would have much avenue to do anything else if the court thinks the 2016 amendment was valid. Her only connection to the trust at this point is as trustee. If she's fired as a trustee, she's out. Then it would be up to Riley to decide whether she wanted to serve alone or whether she would like to add a co-trustee. I don't know what the amendment says about Riley serving alone or if she needs co-trustees, but I don't think Priscilla could do anything to keep her job if they said it was valid.

It seems odd to me that the amendment would be enforced, though. If Lisa Marie really intended to fire her mother in 2016, and take over as trustee, it seems like she would have mentioned it, but she didn't.

UW Law: Do you have any other thoughts or concerns about this that you would like to share?

KB: We don't know what's going on behind the scenes, but my impression upon seeing the petition is that it just sounds like a housekeeping matter. There could be other things, but Priscilla's not asking for money or a cut of Lisa Marie's estate. The media has characterized it as this big war between Priscilla and her grandchildren, that some kind of money grab is going on. I don't see that being the case, at least not in this proceeding.

When you have a famous party like this, that's how the media likes to characterize it. I've seen headlines that say, “Priscilla challenges Lisa Marie's will.” No, there was no will. It's about her job as trustee.