Everyone knows that celebrities are some of the wealthiest people on the planet, and many of them take advantage of this constantly in their public lives. What may come as a surprise is that falling out of the spotlight doesn’t necessarily change this, due to residuals and likeness rights surviving long beyond the peak of their fame. In fact, not even shuffling off this mortal coil and passing away has stopped certain particularly famous celebrities from continuing to rake in the dough.
For many years now, Forbes magazine has been releasing a list of the wealthiest dead people around, with several other publications offering supplemental information that generally confirms their listings. Unsurprisingly, leading the charge this year is “The King of Pop” Michael Jackson, as has been the case almost every year since his demise in June 2009. Not only that, but in typical MJ fashion, he nearly doubles his closest runner up, golf legend and low-key mixology genius Arnold Palmer.
Obviously, these incredibly wealthy celebrities can’t exactly do anything with they money the make. However, their families and heirs can still benefit for as long as they live, which is why many so many of them are quick to sign off on highly lucrative endorsement deals and advertising opportunities. Not that this is necessarily exploitative, considering many of these celebs genuinely loved the spotlight, and their fans are happy to see them cropping up on TV and in the radio despite the fact they’re no longer with us. To discover how Jackson and his peers are still so darn rich, keep reading and learn about 15 celebrities making outrageous amounts of money from beyond the grave.
15 Michael Jackson - $75 Million
Sorry, Elvis fans, but the numbers don’t lie—the real King of Pop, Rock, and Soul is and always was Michael Jackson. Despite passing away in 2009, Jacko has been one of the top earning musical artists every year since then, a status he was well used to while still alive. Jackson’s album Thriller remains the highest selling in history, with plenty of new fans discovering it each passing year. In 2017, Jackson’s estate released a new compilation album called Scream alongside a Halloween special on CBS. While neither of which matched his old successes, they did remind fans of all the other great material he released, indirectly adding to his family’s bank account significantly when people rushed to buy all his old albums. In addition to his own music, Jackson’s estate also owns a percentage of the overall EMI publishing catalogue, earning him millions on the good investment in other artists work. Throw in an immensely popular Cirque du Soleil show, and it’s clear that though the King is dead, fans are still screaming long live the King.
14 Carrie Fisher – $2 Million
Turns out playing a major role in one of the most legendary and successful film series in history can pay off in a pretty major way. Less than one year after her sudden passing in December 2016, Fisher's final film was released, and it just so happened to be one of her highest grossing ever. Star Wars: The Last Jedi lived up to the other stories taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, with the presence of Fisher’s iconic Princess Leia once again serving an integral role to the plot. Reportedly, Fisher made $2 million for starring in the film, plus what was almost certainly more in marketing, advertising, video games, and a whole bunch of toys. In addition to the Star Wars money, an HBO documentary titled Bright Lights profiled Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds two short weeks after her death. This further brought attention to her other works as an actress and writer, plus more money to her heir’s pockets.
13 Muhammad Ali – $5 Million
Floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, Muhammad Ali may well have been the best boxer of all time. He was almost certainly the most charismatic, throwing out catchphrases like that one on a regular basis, rapping and rhyming out unforgettable trash talk to his opponents decades before rap was even a thing. Of course, the more important issue was that Ali could back it up between the ropes, reigning as World Champion three times, a feat that remains unmatched in the sport. For both reasons, Ali has always been an iconic figure in the sports world, and that reputation only grew stronger when he passed away in 2016. Especially since that point, Ali has had a tendency to appear in just about every sports related advertisement in some way. He’s also the subject of dozens of extremely popular posters, which actually do add up to his family making millions from his image appearing on them.
12 Steve McQueen – $7 Million
So damn cool not even death could stop his cult, Steve McQueen was a Hollywood actor who could be a star in absolutely any era. Nothing proves this more than the fact almost 40 years after he passed on in 1980, he remains the highest earning male movie star around. This was already the case way back in 1974, when McQueen was the highest paid living movie star through roles in classics like The Towering Inferno and The Great Escape. Decades after he passed, McQueen obviously isn’t appearing in movies anymore, but his image is still in advertisements all the time. McQueen’s estate also has endorsement deals with top clothing brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Dolce & Gabana, possibly bringing him more money than any movies ever did, dead or alive. To top it off, 2017 in particular saw the release of a documentary titled Steve McQueen: American Icon, which surely brought him plenty of new fans, making him a legend all over again.
11 Bettie Page – $7.5 Million
Of all the names on this list, iconic Playboy pin-up model Bettie Page has got to be the most surprising. Considering there were actually times in Page’s life when she describes herself as “penniless,” it’s truly amazing that she’s making millions of dollars nine years after her demise in December 2008. Even when Page was at her peak, it’s not like Playboy models are the richest women in Hollywood, glamorous though they may look on the magazine’s pages. What always set Page apart, though, was her unique style, introducing many sultry trends that remain incredibly popular today. For this reason, her image is now the face of Bettie Page Clothing, an extremely lucrative line of designer wear inspired by the fashion icon. Page’s name is also used to advertise various bras, lingerie, and other feminine apparel, all adding up to millions more dollars than she ever made while alive.
10 Elizabeth Taylor – $8 Million
Defining popular ideals of beauty to the very end, Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most glamorous actresses in Hollywood history. She was also amongst the most awarded, earning two Academy Awards for BUtterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? An actress from the age of 8, fans might assume it mostly these and other great films that allowed Taylor to become one of the wealthiest celebrities of her day while she was still alive. However, the reality is that Taylor made boatloads more money from an outside endeavor, creating two iconic fragrances in Passion and White Diamonds. Since her passing in 2011, it’s the latter brand that remains responsible for her estate's fortune. White Diamonds is also the reason Taylor still appears on our TV sets in advertisements despite spending over six years in the grave. On top of her perfumes, Taylor’s estate also has stock in a jewelry line she created, meaning she makes money from literal white diamonds, as well.
9 David Bowie – $9.5 Million
Always ten steps ahead of the rest of the world, David Bowie’s final album Blackstar was released just two days prior to his shocking passing in January of 2016. In prescient fashion, much of the album related to the nature of life and saying goodbye to it all, with many fans rightfully treating it as the Thin White Duke’s final farewell. As is almost always the case, immediately after Bowie’s passing, there was a huge resurgence in sales of his albums new and old. Given just how many records Bowie released, how great they were, and the fact they’ve never gone out of style, it would appear one year simply wasn’t enough for his many fans to grieve by purchasing them all. Plenty of advertisers and TV shows are still utilizing the emotions related to his passing more than a year later by using Bowie songs in their media, further adding to his family’s bank accounts.
8 John Lennon – $12 Million
Despite suggesting the world “imagine no possessions” in one of his most iconic songs, there should be no surprise John Lennon was an extremely wealthy man in his lifetime. One fourth of The Beatles, and sometimes considered the group’s leader, Lennon was a driving force in the most popular and successful band in history. After The Beatles broke up, he also embarked on a highly lucrative solo career, releasing a never ending parade of number one hit songs and albums. The music Lennon produced both alone and with a little help from his friends will always be popular, and remain high sellers long after his tragic passing in 1980. On top of all the music money, Lennon was also a well known crusader for peace and social justice, and both movements continue to heavily lean on his image and songs. “Imagine” in particular has found its way onto countless t-shirts and public service announcements, earning big money and helping John’s heirs ease the pain of his loss.
7 Dr. Seuss – $16 Million
When children want to read about a Lorax, Butter Battle, or the time Horton heard a who, they know where to go wish their fish, one red or two blue. To think that we saw it on Mulberry Street, and yet it was true; Dr. Seuss came along with a rhyme for children like you. He ran circuses and zoos, and stole Christmas, too, only to give it right back like a man, with Green Eggs and Ham. While Dr. Seuss left this world in 1991, kids around the world still want to have fun, with all his uniquely silly characters who wouldn’t let their eyes bat at something so weird as a cat in a hat. Kids love them so much they make him millions on TV to this day, as fans young and old wouldn’t have it any other way.
6 Prince – $18 Million
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word, life, it means forever…or at least that’s what Prince thought until April 2016, when he suddenly shuffled off this mortal coil onto his next plain of existence. The Purple One was always flashy, boastful, and mystic, to the extent some fans even believed him when he sang about living forever, yet it turns out even His Royal Badness had an expiration point. Considering how recently it was, many of Prince’s fans are still reeling over his demise, purchasing whatever albums of his they can find. Also an actor and movie star in his own right, Prince’s films, especially Purple Rain, also saw a huge resurgence in popularity after his passing, with movie theaters around the world bringing it back for one night only (or more, if it turned out to be profitable). Always stingy with licensing out his music, now that Prince is gone, more companies than ever before are trying to work out the rights to use it for advertising, which is bound to make him additional millions post-mortem.
5 Tom Petty – $20 Million
In all fairness, Tom Petty had a leg up on everyone else featured on this list in that he didn’t pass away until 2017 was more than two thirds over. The legendary rock and roller left this world in October, meaning he had 10 whole months out of the year to earn money the old fashioned way, which is to say while he was still alive. During his last year on earth, Petty was touring constantly with his band the Heartbreakers, with some reports claiming he could earn as much as $1 million in a single show. Throw in the fact that like almost every popular musician throughout history, the news of Petty’s death caused a huge resurgence in his record sales, and every old hit song became a radio staple all over again, both facts that supplemented his living earnings quite nicely. Anyone in his will can expect to keep running down a dream for a long time coming.
4 Bob Marley – $23 Million
Anyone reading through this list getting a little sad about all the great celebrities we’ve lost, listen to the wise words of Bob Marley, who sang every little thing was going to be all right. From his earliest days as the leader of The Wailers, Marley’s music was relaxed, catchy, and peaceful, all qualities that make it a hit long after his passing in May 1981. It was his message of peace in particular that made Marley an icon, with fans around the world still listening to his loving messages of redemption whenever times get tough. The music is only a small part of it, though, as Marley’s extensive musical family has been selling his image and likeness rights to a number of earth-friendly and new age products. Notably, there’s the House of Marley audio empire, selling speakers, headphones, and the like, and also the Marley Beverage Company, which specializes in mellowing herbal teas.
3 Elvis Presley – $35 Million
Well, it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and…actually, this list is just about the money, so we’ll stick on number one for now. The point is, by rattling off that little laundry list, Elvis Presley became the most popular musician of his era. Though his fame waxed and waned throughout his life, he was still pretty close to the top when he suddenly passed away in 1977. Even four decades later, his music is all over TV, movies, and radio sets, earning his family decent residual checks each time it happens. Being such an icon, Elvis also has an entire amusement park dedicated to him at his former Graceland compound, which opened a new hotel called The Guesthouse just this last year. Elvis’s estate also opened The Memphis Complex in his name. Both of these new businesses only add to the Presley family’s already massive fortune, likely keeping him high on lists like this one for a long time coming.
2 Charles Schulz – $38 Million
For a boy considered outrageously unlucky in his every day life, Charlie Brown would be a certified billionaire were he a real person. Because the balding young man isn’t real, instead it was his creator, Charles M. Schulz, who walked away with serious cash every time a new Peanuts hit the funny pages. Sadly, Schulz passed away back in 2000, but that was hardly the end for Charlie Brown and his many friends, who continue to appear virtually everywhere almost two decades later. There aren’t any new adventures in the newspaper, but they have recently appeared on the silver screen in The Peanuts Movie, which was a decent hit and still earns his estate a pretty penny with DVD sales and residuals. More importantly, MetLife insurance uses the Peanuts in their advertising, providing the Schulz family a wider safety net every time one of their commercials hits the air. Unfortunately, poor Charlie will never kick that football no matter how much he pays Lucy to hold it still.
1 Arnold Palmer – $40 Million
Truth be told, it’s highly doubtful anyone was expecting a professional golfer to be the second highest earning deceased celebrity of any given year. Granted, the never-ending bankroll that once belonged to Arnold Palmer had little to do with his absolute mastery of the golf course, at least not directly. Sure, the 62 PGA Tour titles Palmer won were a nice feather in his cap, but the thing putting dollars in his pockets was the same as it is for most athletes: endorsement deals. Prior to passing away in September 2016, Palmer had longstanding deals with MasterCard, Textron, and perhaps most notably Rolex, all of which continue to pay his estate for his image well after his passing. Believe it or not, though, the true cash cow isn’t Rolex, but rather the delicious combination of iced tea and lemonade that the Arizona Beverage Company sells under Arnold Palmer’s name. Chances are any surviving relatives would drink to that.