Jerry Lee Lewis | Alleged Elder Financial Abuse
Just down the street from Scott’s Pharmacy and the Sevier Memorial United Methodist Church, and near a big dusty farm in Ferriday, Louisiana, you’ll find a newly-christened street called Jerry Lee Lewis Avenue, named after the town’s favorite son. Although Lewis is best known for a string of rock and roll hits including “Great Balls of Fire”, in 2017, he became famous for something else: he’s a victim of alleged elder financial abuse.
At 82, he doesn’t perform as often, but he still has a loyal following and is a beloved entertainer. So how does someone go from being an international celebrity and rock and roll legend, to becoming a victim of elder financial abuse?
It turns out that even if you’re not rich and famous, having a turbulent personal life in your younger years will often lead you to having big trouble with family later on.
Lewis has been married 7 times, most recently in 2012, and he’s had a total of 6 children. The daughter of his third wife, Phoebe, was Lewis’s manager from 2000 until, not coincidentally, 2012. Lewis’s new wife did not get along with her new stepdaughter, and that ultimately led to a lawsuit being filed in 2017 against both Phoebe (and her husband) for defamation, elder financial abuse and fraud.
Among other things, Jerry Lee Lewis and his wife claimed his daughter spent $5 million of Lewis’s money on cars, real estate and plastic surgery, while plying the singer with drugs and keeping him in a moldy house that was so toxic that he resorted to wearing an oxygen mask.
That initial lawsuit was dismissed for being filed in the wrong state, but it was re-filed, and Lewis’s daughter countered with a lawsuit of her own against her stepmother, Judith. Phoebe Lewis-Loftin claimed Judith was increasing dosages of opiates given to Lewis, which caused him to become incoherent and wheelchair bound. She asked a court to order psychological tests to establish whether Lewis does or does not have capacity to make decisions.
As these things go, when families go to war over assets, it quickly gets complicated. The drama surrounding the Lewis family continues to play out in Mississippi courtrooms, and it may be years before the case will be settled. In the meantime, we are left with more questions than answers. Did Lewis’s daughter take financial advantage of her aging father? Was Jerry Lee Lewis medically mistreated? Does Jerry Lee Lewis have capacity to make good financial decisions, or was he being manipulated by those around him? Separating fact from fiction will take some real work.
Regardless of how this plays out, the case of Jerry Lee Lewis is already shaping up to be a sad and unnecessary end to what has been an epic musical career. How could this have been avoided?
As in all situations between stepchildren and stepmothers, it starts with communication. At the point when Jerry Lee Lewis was about to marry his 7th wife, there needed to be some serious conversations about Lewis’s health, finances, stability, goals and ongoing relationships with family. For this situation to deteriorate so badly that it ends in courtroom accusations of elder financial abuse and fraud five years later, those conversations must not have happened.
Stepmother and stepchildren relationships will always be challenging, but they don’t need to result in acrimony, anger and animosity. Reputations and relationships, carefully built and nurtured for decades, can crumble in days. There are better ways; there are better choices.
Of course, Lewis is an entertainer who has always chosen to live on the edge, and maybe we could have guessed that his later life would be tumultuous, just from the first stanza of the song he made an international hit:
You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love drives a man insane
You broke my will, oh what a thrill
Goodness gracious great balls of fire