Celebrity Legacies: Yoko and Julian Battled Over John Lennon’s Estate

When John Lennon of the Beatles was tragically murdered in 1980, his controversial widow, Yoko Ono, took charge of his legacy and his fortune … but where did that leave his two sons? As arguably the most successful songwriter of all time, what did Lennon leave behind?  John Lennon's Estate

And what did the King of Pop have to do with John Lennon’s legacy?

This is installment #5 of our Estate Planning Lessons From The Stars series, which is based on the Celebrity Legacies TV show for which we provide commentary as the estate legal experts.  See other articles in the series here.

He famously sang “All You Need Is Love.”  When it came to leaving money for his first-born son, John Lennon must have had that song in mind, because he apparently didn’t believe that Julian needed money.  In fact, according to Lennon’s first wife, Julian’s mother Cynthia, the man known as the “cool” Beatle was a cruel negotiator during their divorce. Cynthia says he refused to give more than 75,000 pounds for her and Julian, supposedly telling her she wasn’t worth any more.

As part of the 1967 divorce, Lennon created a trust for Julian to receive 100,000 pounds when he turned 21, but he had to split that equally with any other children born to Lennon. From then on, Lennon saw his son Julian no more than once per year, and sometimes went years without seeing him at all.

The story was much different before the divorce.  Julian and Cynthia lived with Lennon for Julian’s first five years of life.  Reportedly, Lennon set up a trust at that time, with about 250,000 pounds for Julian to receive when he turned 25.  But when Yoko Ono came on the scene — helping to end Lennon’s first marriage — Lennon’s relationship as a father to Julian, for all practical purposes, ended as well.

Cynthia wrote in a book that Julian and his father started to become closer at the very end of Lennon’s life.  But, in a 1980 interview — not long before he was shot and killed — Lennon said that Julian was born from an unplanned pregnancy.  He even said Julian “came out of a whiskey bottle,” unlike Lennon’s son born later from his marriage to Yoko Ono.

So it should not have come as a surprise that when John Lennon’s will was revealed, it left everything to a trust controlled by Yoko Ono and an accountant, the beneficiaries for which are believed to be Ono and their son, Sean.  Julian was reportedly left out in the cold. Also, because Ono was named as the sole executor of John Lennon’s estate, it gave her complete control over John Lennon’s image, legacy, and much of his song rights.

Of course, Lennon had also given Ono similar control while he was still alive, by giving her power of attorney.  Ono used that power to invest Lennon’s money in real estate, art, Egyptian artifacts, and even livestock (including 122 cows and 10 bulls).

Despite Ono’s unique investing style (or, perhaps, because of it), Lennon died with an estate worth a reported 220 million pounds. Ono has continued to manage the estate, along with Lennon’s image and royalties, to bring in around $12 million per year in earnings. It could have been higher, except that much of the Beatles catalog of music was sold in 1985, for $47.5 million.  Who was the buyer?  Michael Jackson, of course!

Julian did not take being snubbed from the John Lennon estate lightly.  He sued, engaging in a long battle against Ono for a share of the fortune.  Julian felt that Ono had improperly influenced Lennon.  Eventually, they settled the dispute, but not until 1996 — 16 years after Lennon was killed.  While the amount of the settlement is confidential, media reports place the figure at around 20 million pounds.

For his part, Julian said he couldn’t disclose how much he received, but says what he received wasn’t what he considered to be fair.  He felt it was much preferable to the alternative — facing a lengthy court battle against Ono when she had the wealth of the estate behind her.

The John Lennon estate teaches a critical lesson about estates.  Often, no one wins when a family faces a long and expensive probate fight, which are far more common than most people realize (especially in second-marriage families).  Julian was probably wise to settle when he did, allowing him to get on with his life and save a small fortune in legal fees.

It’s usually not easy to challenge someone’s will or trust — at least without strong evidence of mental incompetency or undue influence.  These can be hard to prove, especially when the will was prepared for a person who was young.  Lennon was just 39 years old when he signed his will, about 13 months before he died.

Sometimes, other family members (or even non-family members) can force your hand and leave you no choice but to battle it out in probate court.  If so, be prepared for emotional turmoil, many stressful months or even years, and a big financial hit.  If you have a chance to reach a reasonable settlement, it is usually much better than the alternative.

Celebrity Legacies is a documentary series airing on the Reelz cable channel, featuring Danielle and Andy Mayoras and other experts, to explore the lives, legacies, and estates of a different celebrity each week.  Click here for upcoming show times.

Danielle and Andrew Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!  For the latest celebrity and high-profile cases, with tips to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your clients, click here to subscribe to The Trial & Heirs Update.  You can “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and Google+.

Categories: Andrew and Danielle, Celebrities, Estate Battles, Estate Planning, Trusts, Wills
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  • wielebny

    Imagine no possessions
    I wonder if you can
    No need for greed or hunger
    A brotherhood of man
    I wonder who wrote that…ideas are for plebs

    • andruska

      cheap…obviously you do care if someone has something you do not have…pittifull

  • Ezheuof23903252

    TRUE he was a junkie and womanizer
    who beat his wife and son

  • Very good.

  • John Drake

    Whereas you’re a dickhead. Congratulations!

  • Lee

    I Have a very low opinion of John Lennon he’s a descrace he had a dreadful Temper ! And never bothered with Jillian and I’m glad people can now now the truth about John Lennon thanks to Juillians interview ! So Yoko and John where ment to be asholes together !

  • nanci

    why didnt his first wife fought for half of his estate when she divorced him. John was very nasty towards his son, but I am glad julian got some money from Ono. Ono should have given julian some money knowing julian was there in john’s life first, she came along and broke up the marriage. She bought cows and goats in stead of giving the son some money, it seem like Ono was a cold mean person.

    • ChickieDumplins

      she didn’t get good help. probably didn’t know how to get good help or understand what she was entitled to. John did really bad by her and his first born son.

      • nanci

        true I read an article how he didnt really like his older son, he thought his first just wanted to trap him in a marriage. Even when the boy got older, he was sidelined by john. John only cared about yoko ono son, he got everything.

  • Kate

    Good for Julian he got something after so long, can’t stand people who are wife/husband beaters, you feel sorry for Julian and his mother Cynthia. John should off been ashamed of himself. Paul McCartney did a better job being father figure to Julian. Yoko Ono should be ashamed of herself, seeing she broke a marriage and stopped John from being a father to Julian.

  • Brad Sharp

    Ono was, is, and always will be a ho.

    • nanci

      now that’s hitting the nail on the head

  • ChickieDumplins

    God have mercy on John Lennon. He did BAD by his first born son! Shameful.

  • Brindia Gaines

    It is said that John treated Julian in almost the exact same way he was treated. He never learned empathy for his own child and left the child feeling the same way he did, unloved.