Muhammad Ali was never one to shy away from battles.  From heavyweight champions in the boxing ring, to the United States Government, and to the ravaging effects of Parkinson’s disease, Ali continued to fight.  Now there are growing fears that the fight will follow him into the grave, with mounting reports of trouble on the horizon for his estate and his legacy.  

The circumstances are ripe for an estate battle.  Muhammad Ali fathered nine recognized children (including his adopted son from his most recent marriage) over the course of four different marriages.  Estate disputes between the surviving spouse and children from prior marriages are the most common source of trouble in probate courts across our country.  Add in the reality of Ali’s long-standing struggles with Parkinson’s disease — which can have not only physical effects, but mental as well — and there is a strong possibility that unhappy heirs may file challenges in court.

And, of course, there is the reality that so much money is on the line.  Initial reports are that Muhammad Ali‘s fortune ranged between $50 million and $80 million.  But that could just be the start.  As Entertainment Tonight reported, the value of the champ’s fortune could increase dramatically now that he is gone, just as happened with Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson.

Because of these circumstances, the early reports of potential estate fighting have to be taken seriously.  Numerous websites, including Radar Online, have reported that Ali’s only known biological son, Muhammad Ali, Jr., has been disgruntled ever since his father married Lonnie, wife number four, in 1986.  Ali, Jr., claims that Lonnie cut him out of his father’s life and rarely allowed him to visit.  Ali, Jr., says he was living in poverty and is now trying to sell a tell-all book in hopes of cashing in on the difficult family dynamics.  He also may file a court proceeding in the hopes of receiving an inheritance.

Muhammad Ali’s second wife, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, recently told BET that she had to protect Ali from paternity suits during their marriage, comparing him to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tiger Woods.  She expects claims by illegitimate children to swamp Muhammad Ali’s estate, saying, “They’re going to come out of the woodwork like roaches.”

And Maxim ran a story about a woman who says she had a 20-year relationship with Ali and is trying to sell a sex tape to the highest bidder.  The woman claims she has a daughter with Muhammad Ali, but the Maxim story states that DNA proved otherwise in 1998.

Despite these reports — which may only be the start — all is not lost for the estate of the self-proclaimed “Greatest Of All Time.”  While no published reports have surfaced yet about whether Muhammad Ali had a will, trust, or other estate planning in place, we expect that to change soon. Muhammad Ali is believed to have created a will, and perhaps other estate planning documents, placing his fourth wife, Lonnie, in charge of his estate. This makes sense considering she is widely recognized for having helped manage his financial and business affairs throughout their marriage.

Several media outlets reported that Ali, with the help of an attorney and others, executed a very-detailed funeral and burial plan, which he reviewed carefully and changed over time.  The plan was spelled out in a two-inch-thick “Book” that left no detail open to chance, from the identity of his pallbearers and speakers at his memorial service, to how and where he wanted to be laid to rest.

It would be hard to imagine that Ali would have taken such great care with his funeral plan without also protecting his wife, his other heirs, and his financial legacy with a will and other estate planning documents.  It is only a matter of time before the extent of his planning is revealed.

When it is, the date that his estate planning documents were finalized will be of critical importance.  The closer to his date of death, and the weaker he was when he signed the will or other legal documents, means the greater likelihood that disgruntled heirs or others can launch a meaningful challenge to the validity of the documents.  Other details will be important too, like whether Ali worked with an experienced and reputable estate planning attorney.

And of course the wording of his will and/or trust documents will be of critical importance.  Did Ali want everything to go to Lonnie, or something for his children?  Or, given his charitable nature and publicly-stated beliefs that doing good meant more to him than amassing money, could Muhammad Ali have left a significant portion of his estate to charity?  We will have to wait and see for details like this.

For example, most wills prepared by experienced estate planning lawyers include language disinheriting any unnamed children.  If that is the case with Ali, then claims by illegitimate children — even those with DNA proof on their side — will likely fall short.  Unlike Prince, whose estate is facing a potentially-overwhelming number of claims by those who say they are biological children, siblings, or otherwise related, Ali likely protected his heirs from this risk.  Prince did not have a will, so anyone with the right DNA can inherit.  Ali, on the other hand, appears to have addressed that problem by naming beneficiaries that he wanted to receive his wealth and excluded anyone else.  If this is indeed the case, DNA alone will not allow those seeking money from the Ali Estate to cash in.

But they still can try.  Lonnie, and any other executors appointed to serve with her, would still have to deal with claims from people looking for a piece of Muhammad Ali’s fortune.  Muhammad Ali, Jr., is not likely to go away quietly.  The battles may be frequent and complicated. Yet, unlike with Prince, the estate complications will be much less if the suspected will and other estate planning documents are in place.  That is, if they were done the right way and if Ali signed them before Parkinson’s disease had an impact on his mental state.

The difference between the estates of Ali and Prince will be interesting to watch over time and will likely provide a valuable lesson.  While good legal planning cannot avoid every estate fight, it can be the difference between a first-round knockout and a brutal contest that goes the distance.  Hopefully, a confirmation will surface soon that Muhammad Ali’s legacy and heirs are protected with good estate planning.

To learn more about common estate planning issues, check out our free guide, Estate Planning Pitfalls: The 12 Most Common Threats to Your Estate & Your Family's Future.

Jackie Bedard
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Attorney, Author, and Founder of Carolina Family Estate Planning
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