Who Inherited Joan Crawford's Money After She Died?

With countless movies that are today considered classics of the Golden Age of Hollywood, actress Joan Crawford's screen legacy has never been in doubt. Her role in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" has remained particularly memorable for generations of viewers, while her Oscar-winning performance in "Mildred Pierce" — released in 1945, 20 years into her career — is considered her creative zenith. However, though she was revered as an iconic screen presence, her reputation for being a difficult personality off-screen has certainly grown since her death on May 10, 1977.

Her much-publicized public feud with her "Baby Jane" co-star Bette Davis — who, it must be said, seemed to have the upper hand over Crawford in terms of crowd-pleasing snipes against her rival filmstar — damaged her image during her lifetime. But nothing compares to the shocking last will and testament she left behind, which excluded two of her four children. The year after she died, her adopted daughter Christina released the memoir "Mommy Dearest," which seemingly went some way to illuminating the callous decision. Nevertheless, the exact nature of Crawford's relationship with her children remains contentious.

A notorious last will and testament

At the time of her death, Joan Crawford left behind her an estate with an estimated value of $2 million, the equivalent of more than $10 million as of 2023. As well as her lucrative acting career, Crawford was also involved with the Pepsi-Cola Company through her fourth husband, Alfred Steele, as a board member and later as a spokesperson. She was unmarried when she died, and many would reasonably assume that her fortune was shared among her four adopted children: Christina, Christopher, and twin daughters Cathy and Cindy, who were all in their 30s at the time of Crawford's death.

However, the strains in Crawford's family shone through in her last will and testament, which included the provision: "It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son Christopher or my daughter Christina for reasons which are well known to them." Instead, Crawford left around $150,000 ($760,000 today) to the twins, with Cathy also inheriting the vast majority of her mother's property assets. According to Vanity Fair, the actress also left a $35,000 bequest to her longtime secretary Betty Barker, while the rest was split between several charities, including the American Cancer Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and the charity she co-founded, Motion Picture Home.

Family grievances

If Joan Crawford's last will and testament made for shocking reading to her countless fans, Christina's memoir "Mommy Dearest" was even more grim. In it, the icon's eldest adopted daughter characterizes her as an abusive and controlling mother. The book was seemingly the final nail in the coffin in terms of Christina's relationship with Crawford — the actress and her team reportedly dreaded the publication of the book when it was announced the year before her death.

Crawford accused Christina of attempting to use her name to make money. The star also claimed that her adopted daughter did not believe she would receive enough in her mother's will. Vanity Fair notes that their relationship took a nosedive after Crawford stepped in to replace her daughter — who was taking a break to have surgery — on the CBS soap opera "The Secret Storm." Meanwhile, Crawford accused Christopher of being sexist, and of being unwilling to have a woman as an authority figure.

A contested inheritance

Despite Joan Crawford's last will and testament stipulating decisively that her two eldest adopted children — Christopher and Christina — were to receive no portion of her estate, the pair were not going to take their being disinherited lying down. Shortly after the document came to light, the pair sued Crawford's estate, claiming that the actress had not been of sound mind when she wrote it and accusing Cathy of manipulating their mother to maximize her inheritance. The suit was ultimately successful, with Christopher and Christina being awarded $27,500 each, around $140,000 today.

To this day, the truth of Crawford's relationship with her two oldest children remains hotly debated. It's undeniable that the version of the actress presented in "Mommy Dearest" and the cult movie based on the memoir have decisively shaped the public perception of Crawford for decades. But her friends continued to defend her after her death, as did her younger children, particularly Cathy, who remembered Crawford as a loving mother and grandmother, per The Guardian.