The Top-Earning Dead Celebrities of 2023

Being dead doesn’t pay as well as it used to. The top-earning dead celebrities on Famereports annual list made about $470 million in the last year, a huge drop of 70% from the record-breaking $1.6 billion they made in 2022.

The reason for this big decline is that many of these famous folks made a lot of money from selling their music catalogs, and that didn’t happen as much this year. Last year, more than half of the top earners did so by selling their creative rights. But this year, only one person did it: the estate of Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist from the Doors, sold his share of the band’s work to a company called Primary Wave for a hefty sum, between $80 million and $100 million. That puts him in third place this year.

But compare that to the $500 million that J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate made in 2022 by selling the rights to Middle Earth (you know, from “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”), or the $250 million that David Bowie’s estate earned last year by selling his songs and music. It’s a big difference!

Without the big money from selling music catalogs, the top-earning dead celebrities this year are the usual famous names. Michael Jackson is back at the number one spot after four years, making around $115 million. His late father-in-law, Elvis Presley, is at number two. In the top five, we also have Dr. Seuss at number four and Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, at number five.

An entertainment lawyer named Bernard Resnick explains why catalog deals have cooled down. First, these investments usually take many years to make a significant profit, and the companies that buy catalogs have used up a lot of their money. Second, it has become more expensive to borrow money, making it harder for these companies to buy catalogs or pay as much for them.

Lastly, Resnick mentions that there’s a shortage of catalogs available. Many artists and writers who wanted to sell their catalogs have already done so. However, some artists are not interested in selling, but their children may be more willing to do it.

The owner of a music catalog also has a time limit – they can only keep the copyright for 70 years after an artist has passed away. Bernard Resnick mentions that “with dead celebrities, the clock is ticking,” which makes the works of artists who have been gone for a long time less attractive compared to those who have more recently passed away.

Another factor affecting the supply of music catalogs is that more living artists are selling their rights. Musicians like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and Dr. Dre, for example, have sold their music rights this year, each for over $200 million. It’s like winning the lottery, says Resnick, for artists who cash in while they are still young. They can have a big payout today, and it can continue to grow for them, or they can opt for an annuity over 25 years.

Despite the challenges, some deceased stars are still making money. For instance, Jimmy Buffett, the billionaire behind “Margaritaville,” passed away recently due to cancer. Shortly after his passing, he had the first No. 1 hit of his career. He is expected to earn significant money in 2024, although he couldn’t make it to the 2023 list due to his recent departure.

Top 13 Highest-Paid Dead Celebrities Of 2023


#1. MICHAEL JACKSON | $115 Million

June 25, 2009 (50)


Top-Earning Dead Celebrity of 2023 is Michael Jackson with $115 million

Michael Jackson has reclaimed the top spot on the list of highest-earning deceased celebrities, a position he last held in 2019. This impressive comeback is largely due to the success of the Broadway musical “MJ: The Musical,” which generated around $85 million in ticket sales over the past year. Additionally, Jackson continues to bring in substantial earnings from the Cirque du Soleil show “Michael Jackson ONE” in Las Vegas.

The future looks promising for Jackson’s estate, as they recently signed on for a biopic titled “Michael,” to be directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Jackson’s nephew, Jaafar. This new project is expected to further boost Jackson’s posthumous earnings.

#2. ELVIS PRESLEY | $100 Million

August 16, 1977 (42)

Heart Attack

Second Top-Earner Dead Celebrity of 2023 is ELVIS PRESLEY with $100 million

Elvis Presley, despite having left us almost 50 years ago, continues to be a significant figure in the entertainment world. His former home, Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, remains a popular destination for fans, with approximately 600,000 visitors in the past year. Graceland generates income from various sources, such as ticket sales and merchandise related to Elvis.

Following the sad passing of Elvis’s only daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, in January, due to cardiac arrest, a legal battle emerged for control of both estates. This dispute involved Elvis’s ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, and Lisa Marie’s daughter, Riley Keough, who is a 34-year-old actress known for her role in “Daisy Jones and the Six.” Ultimately, Riley Keough emerged as the sole trustee of both estates, adding an interesting twist to the legacy of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

#3. RAY MANZAREK | $45 Million

May 20, 2013 (74)


Third Top-Earning Dead Celebrity of 2023 is RAY MANZAREK with $45 milion

In one of the notable music catalog transactions this year, the late keyboardist of the Doors, Ray Manzarek, and the living guitarist, Robby Krieger, joined forces to sell their ownership rights to the band’s music to Primary Wave. This deal encompassed a broad spectrum of rights, including the recorded music, publishing, trademarks, merchandising, and the associated income.

However, it’s worth noting that the drummer, John Densmore, and the estate of the band’s iconic frontman, Jim Morrison, have retained their interests in the rights to the Doors’ music and legacy.

#4. DR. SEUSS | $40 Million

September 24, 1991 (87)


Fourth Top-Earning Dead Celebrity of 2023 is DR. SEUSS with $40 million

Young readers continue to have a strong appetite for the books written and illustrated by Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. His ongoing popularity is driven by a combination of back catalog sales and the release of new books like “How the Grinch Lost Christmas,” which collectively contribute significantly to his yearly earnings.

Additionally, Dr. Seuss generates a substantial portion of his income from licensing his beloved characters, including the Grinch, the Cat in the Hat, and the Lorax. This income from character licensing has even increased compared to the previous year, further solidifying the enduring appeal of his creations.

#5. CHARLES M. SCHULZ | $30 Million

February 12, 2000 (77)


Fifth Top-Earning Dead Celebrity of 2023 is CHARLES M. SCHULZ with $30 million

Despite Charlie Brown’s famous gift of a rock during Halloween, the Schulz estate has been experiencing significant financial success for over a decade. The Peanuts characters have continued their legacy in various collaborations, such as partnering with Apple, which now airs their holiday specials and has introduced a line of digital faces for the brand’s watches.

Fans of Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, and the rest of the Peanuts gang can also enjoy a range of merchandise, including branded cookware available at Williams Sonoma, sneakers from Cariuma, and Igloo Coolers, all part of brand collaborations that were released this year. These partnerships and merchandise offerings have been incredibly popular, making it a delightful experience for fans, almost as enjoyable as a visit from the Great Pumpkin.

#6. Prince | $30 Million (Tie)

April 21, 2016 (57)


Fifth Top-Earning Dead Celebrity of 2023 is prince with $30 million and it is tie with CHARLES M. SCHULZ

Prince, famously referring to the afterlife as “a world of never-ending happiness,” continues to be a lucrative figure for his estate and Primary Wave, which holds a stake in his masters’ royalties, writer’s share, name, and likeness. In efforts to keep his legacy alive, there have been ongoing efforts to publish more of his music.

Since Prince’s passing in 2016, there have been three posthumous albums released under his name. Additionally, this month, a remastered version of his classic 1991 album, “Diamonds and Pearls,” is set to be released. The special box set will include 47 unreleased songs and hours of never-before-seen concert footage, offering fans an opportunity to delve into new and previously unseen content from the legendary musician’s archive.

#7. WHITNEY HOUSTON | $30 Million (Tie)

February 11, 2012 (48)


whiteney 7th position

Whitney Houston, who would have turned 60 in 2023, continues to hold a special place in the hearts of her fans. Her estate has had a remarkable year, driven by the success of a biopic and various brand collaborations. In December, the biographical film “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” generated nearly $60 million in global box office revenue.

Furthermore, MAC Cosmetics introduced a makeup collection in collaboration with the Houston estate, which is managed by her sister-in-law, Pat Houston, and Primary Wave. These initiatives have not only celebrated Whitney’s legacy but have also proven to be financially successful for her estate.

#8. JOHN LENNON | $22 Million

December 8, 1980 (40)


john lennon eighth position

While The Beatles famously sang that “money can’t buy you love,” the estate of John Lennon has certainly accumulated a substantial amount of wealth. Lennon’s steady royalties continue to flow in from his individual music catalog as well as his share of Beatles music. Moreover, the Beatles catalog is still expanding.

Just this week, the group’s final song together, “Now and Then,” is set to be released, made possible with the assistance of artificial intelligence. This song is based on one of Lennon’s demos from the 1970s, which did not make it onto the group’s Anthology album. So, even beyond their time, the Beatles and John Lennon continue to inspire and create music, adding to their financial success.

#9. BOB MARLEY | $16 Million

May 11, 1981 (36)


 9. BOB MARLEY | $16 Million

Even more than 40 years after Bob Marley’s passing, his music remains highly sought after, and his name and likeness continue to be valuable assets. You can find his branding on various products, including headphones, speakers, sneakers, and even cannabis.

Notably, earlier this year, the first Marley-branded cannabis dispensary opened in his homeland of Jamaica. Additionally, in the upcoming year, a movie titled “Bob Marley: One Love,” starring Kingsley Ben Adir, is set to hit the big screen, further cementing Bob Marley’s enduring legacy and his estate’s ongoing financial success.

#10. BING CROSBY | $14 Million

October 14, 1977 (75)

Heart Attack

 10. BING CROSBY | $14 Million

Mariah Carey is celebrated as the queen of Christmas, but for generations of music fans, Bing Crosby remains the king. His estate continues to generate royalties from his music catalog and the use of his songs.

Just this month, the Crosby estate released the posthumous album “Bing Crosby’s Christmas Gems,” bringing previously unreleased and rare recordings to streaming platforms just in time for the holiday season. This new release even features Crosby’s famous duet with David Bowie, “Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy,” but surprisingly omits his biggest hit, “White Christmas.”

#11. GEORGE HARRISON | $14 Million (Tie)

November 29, 2001 (58)


11. GEORGE HARRISON | $14 Million

Similar to John Lennon, George Harrison continues to generate a consistent income from his time with the Beatles and his solo music career. Additionally, a portion of their earnings comes from the psychedelic Cirque du Soleil show, “LOVE,” which is based on the Beatles’ catalog. So, even though Lennon and Harrison are no longer with us, their musical legacies continue to provide financial returns.

#12. ARNOLD PALMER | $10 Million

September 25, 2016 (87)

Heart Disease

12. ARNOLD PALMER | $10 Million

Arnold Palmer, renowned for his golf career, continues to receive royalties from the sale of his signature half-lemonade, half-iced tea beverage. In 2018, the beverage brand bearing his name introduced a spiked line of Arnold Palmer drinks, tapping into the growing market for hard tea beverages. This venture has expanded its range of flavors, capitalizing on the evolving preferences of consumers in the hard tea market. Palmer’s legacy extends beyond golf, as his branded beverage remains a popular and profitable choice.

#13. MARILYN MONROE | $10 Million (Tie)

August 5, 1962 (36)


13. MARILYN MONROE | $10 Million (Tie)

Marilyn Monroe’s timeless and iconic image continues to influence and shape fashion and design trends even more than six decades after her passing. Her estate has earned significant sums through licensing and merchandising.

This includes ventures such as an NFT collection with Zeblocks, the production of false lashes and press-on nails by Kiss, and a lingerie line created in collaboration with Fleur du Mal. These initiatives highlight the enduring appeal of Marilyn Monroe and her ability to remain a fashion and design icon, contributing to her estate’s continued financial success.


The Famereports Dead Celebrity ranking for this year is based on pretax earnings. These earnings encompass a variety of sources, including sales, streams, licensing agreements, and other revenue streams. The time frame for this assessment spans from October 1, 2022, to September 30, 2023. Additionally, estate acquisitions that occurred or were announced during this same period are taken into account.

To compile this ranking, Famereports utilizes data from Luminate, an organization that provides data analysis, and conducts interviews with industry experts to gather information. It’s important to note that fees for agents, managers, and lawyers are not subtracted from the earnings reported in this ranking. Also Forbes is used as a guide to this blog post.

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