The family dispute over Aretha Franklin’s will has finally been put to rest. After a two-day trial and less than an hour of deliberation, a Michigan jury found that a handwritten document found in between Aretha’s couch cushions is a valid will.
When the singer died in 2018, her family believed that she had no will and that her estate would be divided equally amongst her four sons, Kecalf, Edward and Clarence Franklin, and Ted White Jr., under intestacy laws. However, a few months later, not one, but two handwritten documents were discovered in her home that were purported to be wills.
Neither document was prepared by an attorney or followed traditional will formalities. The earlier will, written in 2010 and found in a locked cabinet, was signed on every page and notarized while the later will, which was written in 2014, was found underneath a couch cushion in a spiral notebook and was only signed on the last page.
Because both wills lacked formalities such as witnesses, the jury was left to decide whether the 2014 document met the requirements of a holographic will under Michigan law—Michigan is among the states that recognize handwritten wills. Typically, the most recent will takes precedence over older documents, but even a holographic will must still meet certain state-specific criteria to be declared valid.
The two documents divided Aretha’s assets differently and disagreement over which document was the true will was causing tension and conflict amongst Aretha’s sons since her passing nearly five years ago.
The 2010 will was more detailed and specified weekly and monthly allowances for each of her four sons and made collecting from the estate contingent on a certificate or college degree for Kecalf and Edward. The 2014 will on the other hand, divided the assets equally between three of the sons (one of her sons, Clarence, has special needs and an agreement was reached among the other children to provide for his care) but leaves her home and cars to Kecalf and his children. Both versions of the will allow the four sons to benefit from music royalties and copyrights.
Benefits of a Proper Will
Kecalf and Edward favored the later will, which was more favorable to them, while Ted’s attorney argued in favor of the 2010 will. Either way, a proper will and a conversation with her children about her wishes would have likely saved Aretha’s estate millions in legal expenses, not to mention probably prevented some of the tension among the siblings. Though once estimated to be worth $80 million, a settlement with the Internal Revenue Service over taxes owed and the aforementioned legal fees have decimated that fortune. Luckily, the estate continues to see income from royalties and licensing.
"I think there are a few real-world lessons that can be learned from the Aretha Franklin case and they all point to having an attorney draft your will," said Ashwani Prabhakar, Trusts & Estates Attorney at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron in New York City. "Writing a will yourself leaves open the question of whether it was indeed you who wrote the will, if the signature is genuine, if you were pressured into signing the will, or had the mental capacity when drafting it. These concerns are mitigated when an attorney types up your will after speaking to you about your wishes with you alone and conducting a will execution ceremony in the attorney’s office where witnesses can sign your will and even sign affidavits stating you told them you were signing your Wwll in front of them."
"Having an attorney drafting your will, even if you live in a State that permits handwritten wills without the need of witnesses, such as where Aretha Franklin lived, will give you peace of mind that there are likely to be few questions about the validity of your will," he added.
According to Aretha’s longtime entertainment attorney, counsel had advised her to leave a formal will in place, however, being the private individual that she was, she was reluctant to share such information with other individuals such as an attorney hence the handwritten documents. Unfortunately, her reasoning backfired as the battle over her assets became splashed across headlines in the years since her death, a friendly reminder once again of why proper planning is so important.