The Estate of Billie Holiday — in many sad ways reflects her life

Billie Holiday died in July 1959 at age 44 from complications from cirrhosis of the liver with $0.70 in the bank and $750 strapped to her leg. Holliday died without a Will.

Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

She endured a turbulent childhood, and began singing in nightclubs around Harlemin uptown Manhattan. However, she was beset with legal troubles, as well as alcoholism, and drug abuse, which affected her voice and her reputation, deteriorated.

Holiday known for her vocal delivery and improvisation skills has had a seminal influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.

In 1958 Frank Sinatra said that

?Billie Holiday..was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me..[and] is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years?

Holliday?s hard life was exacerbated by bad choices she made in men. In March 1957, Holiday married Louis McKay, a Mafia enforcer. McKay was abusive, and at the time of her death they were estranged but not divorced. As Holliday died intestate under New York law McKay inherited her estate including her royalties.

Louis McKay died at the Age of 72 following a heart attack and was survived by his wife Bernice Yancey McKay and two sons. As posted last week McKay was Billie Holiday?s fourth husband and road manager, as Holliday died intestate McKay was the sole heir of her estate.

McKay married Bernice in December 1975 they had no children. When he died he bequeathed 20% of his estate to Bernice and the remainder to Louis McKay, III, his son by a previous marriage.

Louis McKay?s estate consisted almost entirely of royalty interests in various musical compositions written or recorded by Billie Holiday, as well as in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. It was estimated that at that time these royalty interests were $15,000 to $20,000 annually.

Bernice McKay, sought advice from the executor of the estate whether to claim the widow?s elective share or to take the 20% bequest of the residuary estate as provided by the will.

The elective share reserves a portion of a deceased estate for the surviving spouse to prevent them from falling into poverty and becoming a burden on the community. Under New Jersey law, a surviving spouse has a right of election to take a one-third of the augmented estate. The augmented estate is defined as the Estate reduced by funeral and administration expenses plus any transfer under a right of survivorship, and the deceased?s notional estate ? which is the value of the property transferred by the deceased at any time during the marriage where they maintained a beneficial interest in that property.

The Court decided that Bernice was entitled to an elective share of one-third of the augmented estate of Louis McKay. Holiday?s estate was valued at around $1,000,000 and earned $121,212 per year. The Court awarded a woman that Holiday didn?t know a one-third share of McKay?s estate ? which was earning $15,000 a year at that time in royalties from Holliday?s music.

Much of Holiday?s material has been rereleased since her death, receiving four Grammy awards for Best Historical Album, and being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1973. Lady Sings the Blues, a film centered on Holiday?s life, starring Diana Ross, was released in 1972. Billy Dee Williams portrayed McKay as a stabilizing amiable figure in her life (McKay was the film?s technical advisor.)

Holiday had people in her life that would have been better at handling her estate than her estranged husband. However like many people she had neglected to make a Will and therefore her estate ended up under the control of Louis McKay.

It was estimated that Billy Holiday?s estate was valued at $14 million in 2014.


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