One Love:  Bob Marley’s Legacy


Gregory S. DuPont June 3, 2021

Four decades after he lost his battle against cancer, the legacy of Bob Marley’s music lives on as does the legacy of the prolonged court battles over his estate.

Though his estate was worth an estimated $30 million at the time he passed away, Bob Marley did not create a will, believing that such a document showed an inappropriate concern with earthly matters.  He died at the age of 36, May 11th, 1981.

As he died without a will, his family could only depend on (Jamaican) intestate laws to decide on the distribution of his estate.  Under these laws, Marley’s wife, Rita, would receive 10% of his assets, plus a life estate of 45%, and his 11 children would be entitled to equal shares in the remaining 45% of the estate. However, the absence of a will meant that the family had no rights to Marley’s name, likeness, and image.

During the administration of the estate, it was discovered that Marley’s business attorney, David Steinberg, and accountant, Marvin Zolt, had convinced Rita to forge her husband’s name to a series of estate documents.  The documents were then predated to before Marley’s death. The plan was to transfer control of the majority of Marley’s corporate holdings, royalty rights, and money, to her.

A series of long legal battles followed. 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. Both accomplices were found guilty of fraud and other illegalities to the tune of $6 million.  Although she was not found to be responsible for the fraud, Rita Marley was removed as a trustee of the estate in Jamaica.

Many other claims against the estate popped up over time, from several children of Marley and their mothers; one from Marley’s eight bandmates, the Wailers; and another from Cayman Music, which claims to own some of Marley’s recordings.

Marley had a $300,000 South Dade house in Miami.  His mother also moved into the house in 1977.  Chris Blackwell, president of Island Records, Marley’s record label, wanted to include the property in an $8.2-million sale of Marley’s estate. Bob Marley’s mother contested negotiations on the sale of the house. The legal battle ended ten years later with both parties benefitting.

In another legal battle that ended in 1991, the Jamaican Supreme Court ruled that Rita Marley and Marley’s children had the exclusive right to use Marley’s name, likeness, and image for commercial purposes.

This ruling prompted another lawsuit in 2011 when Rita Marley and nine of Bob’s children sued his half-brother, Richard Booker, and two of his corporations. Booker was using Marley’s name and image to market the annual 9 Mile Music Festival in Miami and he owned a company that gave tours of the village where Marley was born and is now buried.  He was also trademarking the term “Mama Marley” for a line of fish products. Booker claimed that he had been given permission by Bob Marley himself to use the family name. After a year in court, the family reached a settlement.

As of 2018, Bob Marley is the fifth top-earning dead celebrity, according to Forbes. His estate, now named House of Marley, is managed by four of his children, Rohan Marley, the brand officer of the estate; Cedella; Stephen, and Ziggy, while the rest sit on a board and share the proceeds evenly.

Bob Marley’s lack of will is believed to be due to his personal beliefs.  Had there been a will, trust, or other planning documents, it is less likely that his estate would have been open to fraud or decades of estate disputes and legal proceedings.  

If you would like to know more about what types of estate planning might be right for you and your family, contact The Law Offices of DuPont and Blumenstiel. We can answer your estate planning questions and help you make the right decisions to protect your estate and your loved ones.