When “I Got You Babe” Needs a Will: Estate Planning and Sonny & Cher

Sonny Bono's unexpected death without a will led to a prolonged legal battle between his widow Mary and ex-wife Cher over music royalties, highlighting the importance of thorough estate planning. This case underscores how clear, legally binding agreements can prevent family disputes and ensure proper management of one's estate.

The 1970s were a golden era for variety shows, a TV genre that combined music, comedy, and celebrity guests into weekly entertainment. One of the most beloved was The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, starring the dynamic duo Sonny Bono and Cher.

Sonny (Salvatore Bono) and Cher (Cherilyn Sarkisian) met in 1962, quickly forming a personal and professional partnership. They achieved fame with hits like “I Got You Babe” and “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” In 1969, they married and had a child, Chaz Bono. Their variety show, which started in 1971, featured top guests, elaborate sets, and witty banter.

Despite the show’s success, Sonny and Cher’s marriage ended in 1974, which also led to the end of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. CBS tried to keep the magic alive with The Cher Show and Sonny’s The Sonny Comedy Revue, but both failed. In 1976, they briefly reunited for The Sonny & Cher Show, but it didn’t recapture their former glory. Their last performance together was in 1987 on The David Letterman Show.

After their split, Cher found success in both music and acting, winning an Oscar for Moonstruck in 1988. Sonny remarried Mary Whitaker, had two more children, and embarked on a political career, becoming Mayor of Palm Springs and a U.S. Congressman. Tragically, he died in a skiing accident in 1998.

Sonny’s unexpected death highlighted the importance of estate planning. He passed away without a will, leaving his estate in disarray. His widow, Mary, became the administrator of his estate. Cher, based on their 1978 Marriage Settlement Agreement (MSA), claimed 50% of Sonny’s music royalties. This agreement was consistent with California’s community property laws, ensuring Cher received her share of both record and composition royalties for nearly two decades.

However, in 2016, Mary invoked a provision of the US Copyright Act to terminate prior copyright grants, aiming to reclaim rights to Sonny’s compositions. She stopped paying Cher’s royalties, arguing that the MSA was no longer applicable. Cher, believing her rights were being undermined, sued Mary in 2021 to enforce the MSA.

The court case underscored several estate planning issues. Cher argued the MSA was a revenue-sharing agreement, not a copyright grant, thus it couldn’t be terminated under the law Mary cited. The court agreed with Cher, reinforcing the importance of clear, binding agreements in estate planning. However, it also allowed Mary to appoint a new royalty administrator, which Cher could contest.

In January 2023, Cher sold her rights under the MSA to an unknown buyer, complicating the legal proceedings further. The court’s decision resolved many disputes but left open the question of who should receive certain royalties during the lawsuit’s pendency: Cher or her buyer.

This ongoing legal saga between Cher and Mary Bono illustrates the critical need for thorough estate planning. Without a clear plan, disputes can arise, leading to prolonged litigation and strained family relationships. Ensuring detailed, legally binding agreements can help protect loved ones and avoid complications in the event of an untimely death.

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