Mickey Rooney’s body goes unclaimed as family feuds over burial site
For decades in Hollywood, Mickey Rooney led a charmed life.
He acted opposite Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor, collecting award nominations for performances praised by the likes of Cary Grant, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams. He married starlets and beauty queens — eight times in all.
On Tuesday, two days after his death at 93, it became clear how far his fortunes had fallen in recent years.
Rooney’s trust didn’t have a dime. He owed back taxes to the IRS and the state Franchise Tax Board. He was estranged from most of his nine children and separated from his wife. He had disinherited everyone except one stepson, according to a will filed along with court papers that showed assets of just $18,000.
Even in death, Rooney’s troubles weren’t over. Two feuding factions of his family were in court Tuesday because they could not agree on what was to be done with his remains. A judge ruled that no one can claim his body from the mortuary until the squabble is resolved.
“It’s a sad tale,” said Michael Augustine, who served as Rooney’s conservator since 2011.
At the time of his death Sunday, Rooney was living with stepson Mark Rooney and his wife, Charlene, in Studio City. After lunch Sunday, Rooney went to take his usual nap, and when Mark and Charlene went to wake him, they found his breathing labored and called 911, Augustine said. Rooney was pronounced dead about 4 p.m. and taken to the mortuary at Forest Lawn cemetery.
After his death, his wife, Jan Chamberlin, and her son, Christopher Aber, contacted Forest Lawn and tried to move Rooney’s body against his expressed wishes, Augustine alleged in court papers filed Tuesday morning.
Charlene Rooney said she and Mark received a call from Forest Lawn about the attempt a few hours after Rooney’s passing.
“Mickey was not even gone for a few hours, he had just left here on a gurney, and this ugliness started,” she said. “Mickey hasn’t even seen or spoken to Jan in two years, Chris in almost three years.”
Yevgeny Belous, one of Chamberlin’s attorneys, said his client simply wanted to give Rooney a “befitting” burial.
“It’s Mickey Rooney, after all,” he said. “Everyone involved wants to make sure Mickey is honored, and we don’t want to spend unnecessary time and effort in a court fight.”
Chamberlin and Aber believe Rooney’s wishes were to be interred at a Westlake Village cemetery alongside a plot for Chamberlin, said John O’Meara, an attorney for Aber and his wife, Christina.
Augustine, who has Mark and Charlene’s support, said Rooney had told him he wanted to be buried at a veterans cemetery or alongside other film stars at a Hollywood one.
Bruce Ross, an attorney for Augustine and Rooney’s estate, said Rooney had chosen to separate from his wife while he was living and would not have wanted to be buried next to her.
“They had agreed to live permanently apart. It would be a shame if now that he’s died, they were reunited,” he said.
The fight over Rooney’s burial is the latest chapter in a long-running feud in the courts that began in 2011 with Rooney filing an elder abuse lawsuit against Aber and his wife. Rooney had allowed Aber to begin handling his affairs in 2001, but the arrangement soon became exploitative, Rooney alleged in court papers. Rooney personally testified about the treatment at a Senate hearing on elder abuse in 2011.
Although he remained “mentally sharp,” Rooney became dependent on the Abers, and Christopher Aber began diverting Rooney’s income from personal appearances, acting gigs and residuals to underwrite his own lavish lifestyle, Rooney’s lawsuit said. At one point, Rooney was footing the bills for 10 American Express cards used by Aber and his family, according to the court documents.
Meanwhile, Rooney’s lawyers alleged, Aber had the actor convinced he was broke. If Rooney tried to turn down a gig, “Chris threatened Mickey with foreclosure on Mickey’s home or the loss of Mickey’s medical and health benefits,” according to the lawsuit. At the time he filed suit, Rooney had only one pair of shoes, no spending money and was five payments behind in his mortgage, the attorneys alleged.
“Mickey is effectively a prisoner in his own home,” Rooney’s attorneys wrote in court papers.
Christopher Aber disputed the claims but agreed to stay away from the actor voluntarily without admitting any of the allegations, his attorney said. A Los Angeles judge appointed an attorney to ensure that Rooney and his assets were protected.
Aber later filed for bankruptcy. In that case, a lawyer for Rooney estimated that he was owed nearly $6 million, court documents show. Aber agreed to settle the case for $2.86 million last summer, but the judgment was declared “uncollectable” because of his inability to pay, according to attorneys.
Augustine said he recommended that Rooney live apart from Chamberlin in 2012 after he fell down the stairs while in her care and suffered a broken tooth, a black eye and gashes. The recommendation set off another round of legal battles that ended with a settlement between Chamberlin and the conservator, in which she and Rooney agreed to separate, court records show.
O’Meara, Aber’s attorney, said Tuesday that his client was only looking after the best interests of his mother, who legally remained Rooney’s wife.
“Chris stands with his mother, wants what’s best for his mother: to be buried next to her husband of many years,” O’Meara said. “It’s wildly offensive to keep Mickey Rooney’s wife away from the process of burying her husband.”
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Friday morning.
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