While the myth that Ellen Naomi Cohen, a/k/a Mama Cass, choked to death on a ham sandwich was debunked years ago,[1] the perhaps less sensational “fact” that the singer died intestate has only recently become the subject of dispute. Approximately 35 years after her death, it appears that Ms. Cohen, a member of the 1960’s rock-folk group The Mamas & The Papas, did in fact make a Will, and the beneficiaries thereunder are suing the singer’s estate-planning attorneys for concealing its existence, under theories of malpractice, negligent misrepresentation, and fraud.

An article from today’s New York Law Journal reports that according to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles earlier this month, the law firm of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp prepared a Will for Ms. Cohen in 1967, but the firm advised the singer’s heirs in 1974, when she died, that no Will could be located. Accordingly, the assets of Ms. Cohen’s estate were distributed entirely to her daughter, in accordance with California intestate law.  The plaintiffs’ complaint also alleges that the law firm had conflicts of interest in that it simultaneously represented Ms. Cohen’s estate and some of her creditors.

Recently, one of Ms. Cohen’s sisters, Leah Kunkel, apparently came across information on the internet that led her to believe that a Will existed. She contacted Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp to inquire, and an archivist located the Will in a firm file. Reportedly, under the Will, one-third of Ms. Cohen’s estate would have passed to her mother, who is now deceased, and ultimately would have passed to Ms. Kunkel and a brother — the plaintiffs.

Ironically, at the time it might hardly have been worth the search for the missing testamentary instrument; Ms. Cohen’s estate was insolvent when she died.   However, royalties payable to the estate over the years have been substantial, the article reports, and the plaintiff’s lawyer claims his clients are entitled to “seven figures.”

Not surprisingly, the law firm has denied that it concealed the existence of the Will, calling the allegation “utterly absurd.” It also commented that the lawsuit was barred by the statute of limitations. 


[1] According to urban legend, the singer died choking on a ham sandwich because a partially eaten ham sandwich was found by her bed. Prior to an autopsy, the police speculated that she might have choked to death on the sandwich; she did not. She officially died of a heart attack (see http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0254177/bio).