Bob Marley’s Legacy: Reggae Music and Probate Battles


Bob Marley was a Jamaican singer, well known for his reggae music.  Four decades after he lost his battle against cancer at the age of 36, the legacy of Marley’s music lives on. . . and so does the legacy of the prolonged court battles over his estate.


Marley was survived by his wife of fifteen years, Alpharita Constantia “Rita” Marley, his children, his mother and siblings.  Although he died at a young age, Bob Marley had been receiving treatment for the rare form of melanoma he was diagnosed with four years prior to his death. 

Marley was a member of the Rastafari movement.  Some sources say that because of his Rastafarian beliefs, Marley was unable to acknowledge his mortality because of belief in reincarnation which prevented him from having an estate plan.  Others claim that the followers of the Rastafarian religion believe that wills are evil tools of Babylon.  Either way, Bob Marley died in May 1981 without an estate plan detailing how he wanted his assets to be distributed to his family, friends or associates.

In Jamaica, because he did not leave a will, Bob Marley’s estate assets were to be distributed according to the intestate laws of the country.  This meant that the estate was to be sold and the assets divided amongst his wife and children.  At the time of his death the reported worth of his estate was approximately $30 million.

After Marley passed away, a legal battle was waged for his assets, including the rights to royalties from his music which have amassed millions of dollars since his passing. 

Three years after he died, in 1984, Marley’s final album, Legend, was released posthumously.  Along with his other albums, Marley has reportedly sold over 75 million albums since his death.  The sales from those albums continue to generate millions of dollars, the distribution of profits from those sales is subject to the ownership of the song rights.

Claims of Fraud in the Estate Administration

Under the Jamaican intestacy laws, Rita Marley would have been entitled to 10 percent of the estate and would have held a 45 percent life interest in the remainder of the estate.  (SeeBingham v. Rita Marley.)  During the administration of his estate in Jamaica, Bob Marley’s wife was accused of having forged documents and signing them to pre-date his death.  Those documents would have transferred the ownership interest in Bob Marley’s British Virgin Islands companies that received royalty payments, to Rita Marley.  It later came out that the forged documents were signed under the advisement of Bob Marley’s attorney and accountant. 

As a result of the alleged fraudulent activity, a law suit was filed by the estate against the attorney and accountant who encouraged and produced the forged documents.  The estate claimed that over $13.4 million dollars had been averted from the estate through the fraudulent transfers of Bob Marley’s assets by forged documents.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s award of damages for over 2 million dollars and over 3 million dollars for attorney’s fees.

Although she was not found to be responsible for the fraud, Rita Marley was removed as a trustee of the estate in Jamaica as a result of the attempt to divert the estate assets.

Numerous Claims Made Against the Estate

Other than the claims to the estate made by his wife, the estate saw many other claims including by his children with women other than Rita Marley, his former band mates, the president of the label that produced Marley’s early music, and Cayman Music a publishing company that sued the estate.  

Chris Blackwell is the founder of Island Records and signed Marley and his band the Wailers to a recording contract.  He made a bid to purchase the estate and as a result would have control over many decisions such as licensing of songs and copyright enforcement.

As a result of the claims being made against as well as by the estate, the legal bill continued to grow.  Marley’s family emphasized their frustration with the legal fees that reached over 4 million dollars in the administration of the estate.  The family saw the legal fees that were being expended by the attorneys in the administration as a limitation on the amount that they were entitled to in the estate distribution.

Marley’s Mother’s Home in Miami

Because he died without a will, Bob Marley’s estate was administered by the laws of Jamaica for those who die without a will.  As a result, his mother did not inherit anything from his Jamaican estate. 

Lawyers working for the estate brought a suit to evict Cedella Booker, Marley’s mother, from her Miami home which was purchased as a gift for her by Marley before he passed.  Although no one contended that the home had not been purchased for her as a gift, the Miami home was titled in Bob Marley’s name when he passed.  The attorneys working on the administration of the estate believed that the home should be sold and included in the distribution of the estate. 

It is likely that Ms. Booker was shocked to be sued by the attorneys representing the estate because Marley had purchased the property for her as a gift.  His intent to purchase the property for his mother was known but the attorneys used the legal title of the property to initiate the proceedings in which they sought to evict Ms. Booker from her home.

The Bob Marley Trademark

Zion Rootswear is the only company licensed to produce and sell Bob Marley merchandise.  As recently as 2015, Zion Rootswear sued other companies to enforce the trademark which it owned.  The company, Zion Rootswear is the only company that has the permission to utilize Bob Marley’s likeness in order to produce and sell merchandise. Marley’s likeness has been owned by the Marley family since 1999. 

Aftermath of the Probate Administration

Since his passing in 1981, the courts in Jamaica, the United States and the United Kingdom have seen various lawsuits related to fraud, ownership rights of songs, and trademark enforcement, amongst other claims.  The legacy of Bob Marley’s estate illustrates the aftermath of his decision to not create estate plan documents prior to his death.  Decades after his passing, Marley’s music is still generating royalties and merchandise is creating income that is distributed based on ownership that was determined in the administration of his estate. 

Having a well-crafted estate plan by an attorney may have prevented some of the court battles that occurred due to the estate passing by intestate laws.  For example, although Marley purchased the Miami home as a gift for his mother, there was no plan in place for how the property should be transferred to his mother after his passing.  As such, his mother had to endure the loss of her son in addition to the stress of the attorneys attempting to take away her home to be sold as an estate asset. 

The estate of Bob Marley is an interesting tale of what can go wrong when you do not have an estate plan in place.  While it is recognized that Marley’s lack of a will was due to his personal beliefs, the aftermath highlights the importance of having an estate plan in place, whether a will, trust or other planning documents to convey your wishes to the court about how your estate should be distributed.

If you have any questions about what methods of estate planning might be right for you and your family, contact Stivers Law.  We are happy to help you figure out the best options for your estate plan.

Author Bio

Justin Stivers is the founder and managing attorney of Stivers Law, an estate planning firm specializing in wills, probate, trust administration, and financial risk management services. Justin’s approach goes beyond just creating legal documents. From aligning investments with estate plans to ensuring comprehensive insurance coverage, he safeguards a client’s legacy from unforeseen circumstances. His commitment extends beyond individual transactions, fostering lifelong partnerships to provide ongoing support and guidance.

With an impressive track record, Justin is licensed by the Florida and the Tennessee State Bars. His professional portfolio boasts Series 65 registration as a Registered Investment Advisor, the Wealth Management Specialist™ designation, and a 2-15 License for Health, Life, and Annuities. His dedication to excellence has earned him positions like Board Member of the Estate Planning Council of Greater Miami, Business Eagle Member of the Florida Justice Association, and active membership in esteemed organizations like the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys.

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