Bing Crosby’s First Wife Has No Estate Rights

Bing Crosby’s first wife’s estate doesn’t have the right to a share in the money from use of the crooner’s name and likeness, a California appeals court ruled last week.

Although Crosby’s first wife, Wilma, died in 1952 and Crosby later married Kathryn, and remained married until he died in 1977. in the 1990s, Wilma’s trust sued Kathryn and HLC Properties, the company formed to manage Bing’s royalties and other income, seeking a share of his royalties.

Crosby and Wilma married in 1930 and had four sons before her death in 1952.  Harry “Bing” Crosby became famous as a singer and actor from the 1930s through the 1960s in such classic films as “White Christmas” and “Bells of Saint Mary’s”.  He also stared in a series of popular “road” pictures with comedian, actress Dorothy Lamour and Bob Hope.  Crosby played the straight man to Hope’s buffoon.

The two entities settled the litigation in 1999 with Kathryn’s companying paying Wilma’s trust $1.5 million.  But in 2005, Wilma’s trust went after funds linked to Bing’s “right of publicity” and use of his name and likeness after his death.

The California legislature extended the right of publicity to pass on to the descendants of celebrities in 2008 and made it retroactive to 1985.  Wilma’s estate filed a petition to declare that it had an interest in Bing’s right of publicity and that right passed on to her heirs.

Kathryn and HLC countered that the 1999 settlement blocked any rights Wilma’s estate may have had.

The Second District Court of Appeals in Los Angeles sided with Crosby’s second wife, Kathryn and HLC Properties Ltd, holding that the 2008 law only clarified existing law and thus the amendment did not create any new rights for Wilma’s heirs that fell outside the original 1999 agreement.

“Wilma’s estate expressly released its claims to any additional sources of community property, known or unknown, at the time of Wilma’s Trust’s settlement,” wrote Justice Walter Croskey for the three-judge panel.  The argument that Bing’s right of publicity did not exist in 1999 and thus could not have been subject to the settlement deal “must fail,” he said.

Case: Crosby v. HLC Properties, Ltd., No. B242089


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