how to stay rich
Lisa Marie Presley is not the only person of vast wealth to lose her fortune. But how does this happen? As one prominent investment advisor tells DP: it might be time to up your financial-literacy game.
When Lisa Marie Presley died in January of a purported heart attack at age 54, there was the predictable media rehashing of celebrity family dysfunction: the multiple marriages and divorces, the child custody battles, the estrangement from her mother, the substance abuse issues and struggles with depression.
One issue was particularly mind-boggling: it seems despite inheriting her father’s estate—part of which had been sold in her mid-twenties in a deal that netted her $40 million in cash—an equity stake in American Idol’s parent company, and a sizeable annual income stream, she died millions of dollars in debt, including almost $2m to the IRS, and barely able to make the monthly payments on her Maserati. The estate her own children will inherit includes ownership of the Graceland mansion and part of its revenues, as well as life insurance policies reported to be worth over $30million, but it appears Lisa Marie herself died more or less penniless. How could this be?
We’ll probably never know the truth. Back in 2015, Lisa Marie fired business manager Barry Siegel and then sued him, accusing him of squandering her fortune by badly mismanaging her investments. She claimed, for example, that she had purchased a $9 million home in the UK, unaware that she couldn’t afford the mortgage, and that she owed the UK and US tax authorities multiple years of back payments that she thought her managers had paid. Siegel counter-sued, accusing her of vastly out-of-control spending and failure to pay his (exorbitant) fees. The battle went on for years and was finally settled out of court. And the drama isn’t over: recent reports suggest that Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie’s mother and Elvis’ ex-wife, is planning to battle Lisa Marie’s oldest daughter for control of the remaining estate.
For all the rock-star elements of this latest Page Six tragedy, it’s not an unfamiliar story. History is littered with tales of family fortunes lost due to overspending, mismanagement or outright fraud, sometimes involving shady advisors or overly risky investments, and heirs impaired by grief, inexperience, or mental health issues.
From the dissolution of the Vanderbilt family fortune to the downfall of the Pulitzer publishing empire, it’s clear that these stories of lost wealth are by no means gender specific. But the lessons learned from them are becoming more and more relevant to women.
A 2022 study by Wells Fargo concluded that, thanks partly to longer lifespans, nine out of 10 women will eventually take charge of their family’s wealth. And, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company in their 2020 paper Women as the next wave of growth in US Wealth Management, by 2030 American women are expected to control much of the $30 trillion in financial assets that baby boomers will possess—“a potential wealth transfer of such magnitude that it approaches the annual GDP of the United States”.
This wealth transfer means women need to become more financially literate, and soon. By middle age, women are still much more likely to be in charge of the household budget and daily banking than they are of bigger-picture items like investment portfolios, tax planning, and life insurance. The business of giving financial advice to women has made progress, but is still very much male dominated. Women often report being talked down to or ignored by their husband’s or parents’ (predominantly male) wealth managers.
So what’s a woman to do? The challenge of tending to significant wealth, especially for someone thrust into the role suddenly (due to a death or divorce), can feel overwhelming. Overcoming this challenge starts with a series of crucial decisions: the first and perhaps most important is the decision to actively participate in one’s own financial journey. The second is, of course, deciding who to trust for advice.
What does it mean to be an active participant? It means that even though it’s tedious or hard, you commit to asking questions and learning the basics and being aware of your financial health. It’s pretty tempting to let the Amex summaries and the quarterly account statements accumulate unopened; that’s basically what Lisa Marie’s ex-advisor accused her of doing. She would have been a lot better off if she had been aware of basic information like the totals in her accounts, her annual income, and how much money she was spending. Ideally she also would have noticed that she hadn’t paid her taxes for several years in a row. Certainly she was busy with life, kids, and perhaps some personal demons, but she undeniably would have benefited from paying more attention to her finances.
Secondly, how do you move past your insecurities and discomfort to confidently choose and then collaborate with a financial advisor? The key factors here are competence, transparency, and comfort. Once you’ve researched credentials, you can ask about fees. Principled advisors are forthcoming about how they get paid, and can clearly explain the value they provide. Lisa Marie claimed she had no idea that Siegel was paying himself almost $800,000 per year even as the value of her assets was declining catastrophically.
More commonly, brokers may be padding their income by charging commissions for trades they recommend, or by charging a higher than normal management fee. A typical starting point for annual fees is 1 percent of your assets, but usually the percentage declines as the amount of money goes up, and tends to be closer to .5 percent as you near $10m in assets managed (about $50,000 per year). Some of this is also dependent upon what services are included: investment management, retirement planning, tax planning, estate planning, business advice. Some “white glove family offices” offer concierge services (probably what Siegel was doing for Lisa Marie) like payroll for household staff, private aircraft management, and negotiating real estate purchases.
Once credentials and transparency are established, the choice comes down to who makes you feel comfortable. You should be able to ask questions and not feel stupid, and get answers that you understand. You should feel comfortable asking for help (if you need it) with your budget and advice on things like insurance and real estate purchases. Maybe you feel less intimidated by a woman, or want someone who communicates with visual props, or who specializes in a niche that resonates with you (widows, art collectors, tech investors, millennials, etc.).
There are a lot more decisions to follow those first two big ones: hiring a separate tax and legal team, identifying goals, determining your priorities, articulating financial values and philanthropic philosophy, deciding who gets the money when you die. A lot of these decisions are easier when you have a trusted advisor to help you talk them out, but ultimately it’s you who has to take charge of your life.
It wasn’t money troubles that brought Lisa Marie to an untimely end, and her children will still be very wealthy. Who knows if a better handle on her finances could have made her life happier; maybe at least it would have been one less source of stress and conflict. For the rest of us, the reality is that taking ownership of our financial journey is part of adulting—whether we like it or not. With a bit of a roadmap, and with trusted partners, it can actually be an empowering and rewarding process.
Hero image: Lisa Marie Presley, second from left, with her mother, Priscilla Presley, center, and her three daughters, in June 2022. Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic