James Dean died in September 1955 as a result of a car crash aged 24, although he only starred in Rebel without a Cause, Giant, and East of Eden he remains a cultural icon and his estate earns millions of dollars a year.
James was abandoned by his father as a baby, and raised by his aunt and uncle, as he died intestate, under Californian law his father- who he had no relationship with- inherited his estate and financial legacy worth around $100,000 at the time (after paying taxes).
A foundation was established to maximize the commercial value of James name, likeness, and image. James’ estate generates between $1-3 million annually through the licensing of his likeness on merchandise and in commercials. The foundation has had to defend itself from lawsuits brought by Hollywood studios. Courts have decided that the estate has the sole rights to sell merchandise and otherwise profit from his legacy.
The ability for the estate to continue to control the rights to James’ name, likeness and image was important not just for the foundation but also for the estates of actors who worked in the film industry during that time period. If the studios had been successful they would be able to exploit these rights commercially instead of the estates of movie stars.
It is arguable that James didn’t want his father to inherit his estate—and control his name, likeness, and image. His father could then direct where the estate would go and who made the decisions, and the millions of dollars earned each year from memorabilia and collectables.
As James didn’t create a Will he had no say in how his estate was directed. The intestacy laws of the state he lived in when he died governed who received and controlled his legacy.
It is important that you take steps to plan for you and your family’s future. Take out life insurance, prepare an advance care directive and a Will as a minimum – remember these documents can be updated as often as you like- but it is better to make them to reduce the stress on your friends and loved ones at an already difficult time.