Who Are the Highest Paid Dead People?

Celebrity, Wills & estate planning

Actress Elizabeth Taylor—who passed away last March—earned $210 million in the last 12 months, thanks mostly to auctions of her jewelry, costumes, and artwork, which brought in $184 million. Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume alone brought in $75 million last year.

Michael Jackson should be back at the number-one spot of top-earning celebrities soon (now that most of Liz Taylor’s stuff has been sold), but the pop star remains the highest-earning musician—living or dead. Jackson pulled in $145 million in 2012. In addition to continued revenues from the work of other artists (through his 50 percent stake in the Sony/ATV publishing catalog, which includes the Beatles and Lady Gaga) and his own record sales (even ringtone sales still make the man millions), Jackson’s Immortal Tour with Cirque Du Soleil grossed $160 million in 2012.

Elvis (the number-two top earner in music) matched the earnings of Justin Bieber this year, at $55 million. Although his Viva Elvis show in Vegas recently closed, Graceland attendance is still high.

Peanuts creator Charles Shultz made $37 million in the last 12 months. The producers of Ice Age have a big-screen treatment for the strip scheduled for 2015, so we don’t expect Shultz’s earnings to decrease much.

Bob Marley made $17 million this year—more than Snoop Lion (formerly known as Snoop Dogg). Not necessarily known for commercial ventures in life, Marley has been a pretty successful dead businessman; a Marley beverage company sells a “relaxation drink” called Marley’s Mellow Mood, while House of Marley earns a hefty profit selling Marley gear like headphones and bags.

I Can’t Earn Money While I Sleep—How Do Dead People Make Money?

Copyrights don’t die with authors; while the rules surrounding copyright expiration are complicated and dependent upon dates of creation, publication, and copyrighting, copyrights generally don’t expire for at least 70 years after the death of an author. Currently, anything created since January 1, 1978 is generally protected by copyright laws. The author’s children or otherwise will-specified heirs then have the opportunity to extend the copyright for another 67 years—as long as copyright is applied for a year before its expiration. Still, be sure to clarify who gets the rights to your copyrighted material in your will.

Memorialize Your Things, Keep Your Kids Rich

Obviously copyrighting your intellectual assets can be complicated; make a portfolio of your music, art, writing, photography, inventions, or whatever your money-makers are, and hire a copyright lawyer to help you memorialize and register your work with the Copyright Office or Patent Office so that others cannot copy and distribute your work without giving you a cut.
While you will probably never earn as much as the late Michael Jackson, your kids will appreciate the extra revenue if you protect your intellectual assets. That jingle you wrote in your basement can’t make you rich if you don’t own it, so find an entertainment lawyer, get everything on paper, make it official, and rest in peace while making money.