Rock & roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis died at age 87 on October 28, 2022 following several years of declining health. Wildly pounding away on the piano, he ushered in the golden age of rock & roll with classic hits including Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. He also heavily abused amphetamines, barbiturates and alcohol. In one notorious incident, the drunken performer rammed his car into the gates of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion, a loaded gun on the dashboard. Lewis married seven times, once to his 13-year-old cousin. He had an ongoing feud with the IRS over unpaid taxes and in 1988, declared bankruptcy. Explaining the wild behavior that earned him the nickname “Killer,” he told his biographer matter-of-factly: “I ain’t no goody-goody.” Considering the chaos Lewis generated during his life, the legal chaos that followed his death is hardly surprising.
Lewis’ Will and House Title In Conflict
In the 1970s Lewis purchased a 30-acre ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi, where he raised his family. The unique property attracted tourists, and still does. It boasts a piano-shaped swimming pool, a stocked lake, pier, and a fully contained apartment in addition to the main house.
Ironically, what the property did not have was Lewis… as its official owner. He deeded it to his tour manager and one-time brother-in-law, Cecil Harrelson Sr. in an attempt to protect it from the IRS. Then, when Harrelson passed away in 2013, Harrelson’s own estate plan passed the property to Harrelson’s three children: Maryjean, Cecil Jr. and Edona. Still, Lewis continued to reside in the house for nine more years, until his own death.
Lewis’ youngest son, Lee, never knew that the Harrelsons were the legal owners. His father had always told Lee he would inherit the ranch, and in fact Lewis’ last will and testament bequeathed the property to his son. Of course, Lewis at that point had no legal right to leave it to anyone.
Lewis’ Son vs. the Harrelson Children
Lee was living at the ranch when his father died in 2022. He was shocked when the Harrelson children put it up for sale and demanded he vacate the premises. This was definitely not the original arrangement that existed between his father and Harrelson, Lee claimed. He told the press: “When it comes down to it, my dad wouldn’t have willed me my family home thinking that it was not going to be ours. That makes no sense. Despite accounts to the contrary, my father never intended the property to be passed on to Cecil and his heirs. Consistent with my father’s wishes, he left the ranch to me in his last will and testament.”
The Harrelson children were befuddled by Lewis’ will. Their father, Cecil Harrelson, had title to the ranch. He had given Lewis a life estate in the property out of a sense of loyalty to the performer. When Lewis died, the Harrelson children, now the owners, were entitled to do whatever they wanted with the ranch. Maryjean wrote on the website that advertised the sale of the ranch: “There can be no doubt that all parties involved were aware of the circumstances for many years. So, we are puzzled and concerned that the last will and testament of our uncle, Jerry Lee Lewis, mentioned the property on Malone Road. He was very much aware that the property could not be passed to his heirs when he was last in contact with my brother, Cecil Harrelson, Jr. He would have no reason to believe this had changed unless he was misled.”
Predictably, the conflict ended up in court. The Harrelsons prevailed, and Lee was evicted from the ranch in March. The unique property is now up for sale. But before you start feeling sorry for Lee, consider this: He will be getting a piece of the rest of his father’s estate, estimated at somewhere between $10 and $15.4 million. And he already has his own home just up the road from the ranch – purchased for him by his father.
Most of us lead lives far tamer than the one Jerry Lee Lewis led. Notwithstanding, what occurred with his estate serves up a relevant lesson for our own estate planning. When you develop your estate plan, it is essential to thoroughly examine the titling of your assets and your beneficiary designations, to make sure they are in sync with your estate planning documents. Ambiguities and conflicts will create messy legal problems for your heirs that could result in family feuds and even lead to court battles. Contact The Karp Law Firm attorneys at (561) 625-1100 to discuss your own estate planning.
To see photos of the Jerry Lee Lewis Ranch that is now up for sale, click here.