Billie Holiday’s Estate

Louis McKay died at the Age of 72 following a heart attack and was survived by his wife Bernice Yancey McKay and two sons. As posted last week McKay was Billie Holliday’s fourth husband and road manager, as Holliday died intestate McKay was the sole heir of her estate.

McKay married Bernice in December 1975, they had no children. When he died he bequeathed 20% of his estate to Bernice and the remainder to Louis McKay, III, his son by a previous marriage.

Louis McKay’s estate consisted almost entirely of royalty interests in various musical compositions written or recorded by Billie Holiday, as well as in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. It was estimated that at that time these royalty interests were $15,000 to $20,000 annually.

Bernice McKay, sought advice from the executor of the estate whether to claim the widow’s elective share or to take the 20% bequest of the residuary estate as provided by the will.

The elective share reserves a portion of a deceased estate for the surviving spouse to prevent them from falling into poverty and becoming a burden on the community. Under New Jersey law, a surviving spouse has a right of election to take a one-third share of the augmented estate. The augmented estate is defined as the Estate reduced by funeral and administration expenses plus any transfer under a right of survivorship, and the deceased’s notional estate – which is the value of the property transferred by the deceased at any time during the marriage where they maintained a beneficial interest in that property.

The Court decided that Bernice was entitled to an elective share of one-third of the augmented estate of Louis McKay. Holiday’s estate is worth around $1,000,000 and brings in $121,212 per year.

The important thing to take away from this story is that if you die intestate what happens to your estate including  royalties from writing, recordings or art work could end up enriching people who are entirely unrelated to you.

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