These Dead Celebrities Still Make More Than You

It won't surprise anyone that the highest-paid celebrities make significantly more than typical American households, whose median income reached its highest point on record in 2016 at $59,039. Sean Combs, who topped Forbes’s 2017 Celebrity 100 List, for example, made $130 million over the course of a year, or more than 2,200 times the median. He was followed by Beyoncé Knowles, J.K. Rowling, Drake and Cristiano Ronaldo, who made 1,575 to 1,778 more than the median.

But what might be more surprising is that in some cases celebrities continue to rake in many times what most Americans make in a year (or in a lifetime) even after they have passed away. Forbes released its annual list of top-earning dead celebrities on Monday, with Michael Jackson leading the pack.

The former pop star’s estate earned $75 million between October 15, 2016, and October 15, 2017 (numbers on the list indicate pretax income before deductions for agents, managers and lawyers). In Jackson’s case, the earnings came from the CBS special Michael Jackson’s Halloween, the new album Scream, Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and his stake in the EMI music publishing catalog.

11_01_Michael Jackson U.S. pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson preforms before an estimated audience of 60,000 in Brunei on July 16, 1996. Nearly a decade after his death, Jackson topped Forbes's list of top-earning dead celebrities yet again, raking in $75 million. Francis Sylvain/AFP/Getty Images

Jackson made nearly twice as much as the next celebrity on the list. The iconic golf pro Arnold Palmer, who died at age 87 just before the 12-month period of income began, made $40 million from branded apparel and Arizona Beverages’ line of drinks named after him. (“Arnold Palmer” is the nickname for a drink Palmer is credited with concocting that contains a mix of iced tea and lemonade.)

The top five continues with Peanuts creator Charles Schulz ($38 million), music icon Elvis Presley ($35 million) and Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley ($23 million). Women took the number-two and number-three spots in the list of living celebrities this year. But the highest-earning dead female celebrity in the past year was Elizabeth Taylor, coming in at number 12 with $8 million, following Tom Petty ($20 million), Prince ($18 million), Dr. Seuss ($16 million), John Lennon ($12 million), Albert Einstein ($10 million) and David Bowie ($9.5 million). The only other woman on the 13-person list was Betty Page with $7.5 million.

In other words, the top-earning dead celebrities made almost as much as the best-paid living celebrities in the past year—Jackson’s earnings were equivalent to those of Bruce Springsteen, who took the 17th spot on the living-celebs list. And sometimes they earn more. Jackson topped the dead-celebs list last year, too, but with a staggering $825 million, $750 million of which came from the sale of his half of the Sony/ATV music publishing catalog to Sony. His estate’s haul last year was nearly five times that of the highest-earning living celebrity of 2016; Taylor Swift topped that list with $170 million.

In other words, Jackson’s estate last year made the same as nearly 14,000 American households earning the 2016 median income and about 1,270 households this year. He and other dead celebrities sure could feed a lot of people.

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