Administrating the Bob Marley Estate: Are the Marleys Waiting in Vain?

Administrating the Bob Marley Estate: Are the Marleys Waiting in Vain?

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., December 2009

Even the cancer that was overtaking his body could not convince reggae pioneer Bob Marley to write a will. Marley's Rastafarian faith prohibited a belief in death. Creating a last will and testament simply wasn't an option. Marley's concern for his wife and children drove him to ask his attorney about the consequences of dying without a will. He was told, essentially, that "everything's gonna be all right."

Not so. Bitter legal battles and family feuds erupted after the reggae star's death on May 11, 1981. Under Jamaican law, Marley's widow, Rita, was entitled to 10% of her husband's $30 million estate and held a life estate in another 45%. Marley's 11 children (4 by his wife and 8 by other women) were entitled to equal shares in the other 45% as well as a remainder interest in Rita's life estate.

Simple, right? Predictably, this clear cut law was muddled by personal relationships, attorneys, and accountants.

The family was immediately concerned after learning the absence of a will meant they had no rights to Bob's name or likeness. In response, Rita borrowed money and sued the estate. Millions of dollars later, she was rewarded with the decision that the family was entitled to Marley's name and likeness.

On the personal front, Marley's widow and his mother, Cedella Booker, went their separate ways. The two have since reconciled, but at one point, Booker asserted Rita's heart was black. Outside of the family, Marley's long-term bandmate, Aston "Family Man" Barrett, sought royalties from his time with Marley's Wailers.

The estate's most famous brush with the courts came in 1986. The estate administrator, Mutual Security Merchant Bank and Trust Company, sued Marley's attorney and accountant. Mutual Security accused Marley's advisors (and Rita) of diverting estate assets and royalties into their own bank accounts via international corporations. Rita was accused of forging Marley's signature on documents that supposedly transferred some of his interests to her before he died, which excluded them from estate property.

All of the legal wrangling hasn't tainted the mystique surrounding Bob Marley. As his first greatest hits album proves, he is a legend. His popularity grows as each new generation meets him through his music. Clothing and accessories abound on the market. His songs are continually featured in films and commercials. Forbes Magazine estimated Marley's posthumous earnings at $9 million just between September 2002 and September 2003. That's not bad for someone who has been dead for over twenty years. His music catalog alone is worth about $100 million.

A lot of clams, for sure, but imagine what the Marley fortune would be if it hadn't been for all the legal fees.

No will, no cry? Quite the contrary.