March 12 marks the 100th birthday of literary legend, Jack Kerouac. Though he died in 1969, his legacy as “King of The Beats” lives on.

During his abbreviated life, Kerouac authored 14 novels, but On the Road, published in 1957, is undeniably his most popular work. Kerouac’s reputation as a literary icon grew in the decades following the book’s publication earning him a cult following that persists today. His legacy as a father of the Beat Generation (along with writer William S. Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsburg), is based largely on this seminal work. (Many Beat writers were also women, though their work has been less prominently recognized.)

Despite Kerouac’s fame and following, chronic alcoholism left him penniless in the last years of his life. By the time of his death at age 47, his estate was worthless. It was valued by the bank at the nominal sum of $1 when he died in St. Petersburg, Florida from cirrhosis of the liver. Today, it’s worth millions, and the complicated fight for his fortune more than 70 years after his death is still unresolved. It’s fraught with familial infighting, righteous desperation, and outright greed, as well as an allegedly suspect signature on Kerouac’s putative will.

When Jack died, he left his estate to his beloved mother Gabrielle Kerouac. She died just five years later and left her inheritance to Jack’s third wife, Stella Sampas. When Stella died in 1990, she divided the estate amongst her 5 siblings, naming the youngest brother, John, as administrator. John, a retired antiques dealer, saw the potential for profit and knew how to package Jack’s writings as the work of a literary pioneer and cultural icon. In time, Jack’s only child, Jan Kerouac, entered the fight, speaking out against John Sampas’s management of the estate and his lack of due care for her father’s work. She claimed that Gabrielle’s will was a forgery and attempted to contest it. Later, Kerouac’s destitute nephew, living in a California junkyard, got involved as well. He produced a letter, written by Jack on the day before his death, which stated his wish for the estate “to go to someone directly connected with the last drops of my direct blood line” and to “not leave a…thing to my wife’s…relatives.”

With so many players, so much mistrust, and such desperate need and greed, this will dispute is perhaps more dramatic than most, but disagreements of this sort are not uncommon, especially when so much is at stake. For the whole sordid account of the Kerouac will contest, and to trace its journey through the courts, click here. Additional reading is linked below.



  • Contesting Wills in Texas with Robert Ray To learn about will contests in general, this website and podcast are excellent resources.