This week, a legal battle over Aretha Franklin’s multimillion dollar estate was concluded in a two-day trial in a probate court in Pontiac, Michigan.
The Queen of Soul passed away in 2018 at the age of 76 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She left behind two different versions of Wills, causing strife amongst her adult children. Although her estate entered probate after her death, the resulting trial just now concluded.
There are many celebrities who have died intestate (passed away without a Will), including Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and Pablo Picasso. While Franklin did leave behind Wills, the resulting estate battle provides yet another high-profile example that demonstrates why it’s so important to have a formal, valid Estate Plan in place.
The facts of the case
Aretha Franklin is survived by four adult children. When Aretha Franklin passed away, she was survived by four adult sons: Clarence Franklin (68), Edward Franklin (66), Teddy Richards (59), and Kecalf Franklin (53). Her eldest, Clarence, has undisclosed special needs and is under legal guardianship and is thus not involved in the case.
The Queen of Soul’s estate is worth $6 million and includes the songstress's main home in Bloomfield Hills, as well as several other homes, furs, jewelry, assets related to her music, and bank balances.
Two different versions of handwritten Wills were found. At the time of her passing, Aretha Franklin’s niece Sabrina Owens was unanimously selected as the Personal Representative of the estate. During a search conducted at Franklin’s suburban Detroit home, Owens discovered two different Wills that were handwritten by Franklin. One was found in a notebook under a couch cushion while the other was found in a locked cabinet. The Will located in the notebook was dated 2014 and the one located in the cabinet was dated 2010. Further, these two different Wills include conflicting instructions regarding how to distribute the estate.
The validity of these Wills are called into question, causing delays in the case. While the estate entered probate shortly after Franklin’s passing, delays were caused by the pandemic as well as challenges regarding the validity of the Wills. Five years later, the case finally entered trial before a jury of the Oakland County Probate Court in Michigan.
What is a Holographic Will, and is it valid?
Before we share the verdict of the case, let’s first address the validity of handwritten Wills.
A Holographic Will is a Will that is handwritten and signed by its creator, the Testator. This is in place of a modern Will that is usually typewritten or created digitally using an online platform (such as Trust & Will.)
While holographic Wills were commonplace before technology, they are now outdated and are not valid in every state in the U.S. Just over half of states will recognize a holographic Will but experts commonly agree that they are not best practice. An individual may handwrite a Will out of necessity, but should be aware that they are not always legally binding.
As we saw with the case of Aretha Franklin, she not only left behind one handwritten Will, she left behind two different versions of holographic Wills. Not only were their validity called into question, the contradictions created strife amongst her children.
Our guide on Holographic Wills provides lists of the states that do and do not recognize holographic Wills as legally valid. The laws regarding handwritten Wills and their validity vary from state to state.
The verdict: “couch pages” ruled as Aretha’s true Will
Interestingly, Franklin’s children did not believe that she had a Will when she passed away. If Franklin had truly died intestate, her assets would have been divided equally among her four sons. (Per Michigan intestacy laws.)
However, several months later, two different handwritten Wills were found. Michigan law allow for holographic Wills, so long as they are valid. Neither document was prepared by a lawyer nor signed by witnesses, although the Will written in 2010 was notarized. Thus, the Jury was tasked with determining whether the later 2014 Will is valid.
Each Will called for different instructions regarding the distribution of Franklin’s assets. The 2010 Will provided for weekly and monthly allowances for each of the singer’s four sons. It also instructed that Kecalf and Edward were required to take business classes, obtain a certificate, or get a degree before they could collect from the estate.
In the 2014 Will, Franklin’s sons (with the exception of Clarence) would inherit equal shares of her music royalties. However, Kecalf would solely inherit more of Franklin’s property, including her Bloomfield Hills home and cars. It is believed that this is because unlike his elder brothers, Kecalf has a large family including two daughters and two sons (Franklin’s grandchildren.)
The estate battle between siblings simply boils down to personal incentives and outcomes that would result in winners and losers. Kecalf and Edward favored the 2014 document while Teddy favored the 2010 documents. The former two brothers argued that the 2014 Will better represented her final wishes and that because it is a later version, it should revoke the earlier version. In contrast, Teddy argued that the 2010 version provides much more detail and has the singer’s signature on every page.
After a two-day trial, the six-person jury ultimately decided that the later version written in 2014 — the one found in a notebook under a couch cushion — is valid and should serve as Aretha Franklin’s Will. This means that Kecalf and Edward won the case.
Importance of a formal estate plan
Here, you may be wondering why Aretha Franklin didn’t take the steps to put a formal Estate Plan in place. For someone so famous and wealthy, why the scribbled documents and hid under a cushion?
Franklin was widely known as a very private person, and quite possibly paranoid. For example, she would insist on being paid in cash for her performances, which she would keep in her purse onstage. Don Wilson, Franklin’s attorney, reportedly advised the singer numerous times to set up a formal Will and Trust prior to her death. Speculation tells us that Franklin hand wrote her Will herself because she didn’t want to share any of her information to another person, not even her attorney.
This begs the question as to whether Franklin would have put a formal Estate Plan in place had she known the strife it would cause amongst her loved ones. Further, she could have put her loved ones at risk.
First and foremost, Franklin was lucky that she lived in a state where holographic Wills are recognized, and that the jury found one if not both versions valid. If she lived in a different state, or had a different jury even in the same state, it is quite possible for the Wills to be ruled invalid. In this case, her large estate would have been divided equally amongst her four sons and against her wishes.
While state intestacy rules may work in your favor, they may also not. Franklin’s eldest son has special needs due to mental illness, which should have served as stronger motivation for the late singer to put an Estate Plan in place. It would allow her to leverage important tools to protect her loved one, such as creating a formal Conservatorship as well as setting assets aside in a Special Needs Trust to ensure that her son was provided for, for life, and without jeopardizing any current system of support that may be in place.
Last but not least, creating an Estate Plan before her death would surely have helped prevent the strife that occurred amongst her children. According to the New York Times, there was a palpable coldness amongst her sons in the courtroom. Further, Sabrina Owens resigned from the position of Personal Representative in 2020 after being accused by Kecalf of mismanagement of the estate and due to the rift that developed in the family. Further, it took over five years following Franklin’s death before resolution was found and the estate could proceed through the probate process.
Create an estate plan for peace & privacy
Had Franklin been more informed on how a formalized Estate Plan could help prevent strife and publicity regarding her estate, she arguably would have done so. Franklin is widely known to have been a very private person. Sadly and ironically, the matters of her estate were anything but private. It turned into a full-blown estate battle between her adult children that garnered much attention from the public and the media. This is not the R-E-S-P-E-C-T she would have envisioned for her family.
If you are a private person like Aretha, heed this story as your cautionary tale.
Here’s the good news: you can leverage Trust & Will’s platform to construct a formal and valid Estate Plan from the privacy of your own home. You can have peace of mind knowing that if anything were to happen to you, your family members won’t have to worry about determining the validity of your Will and/or Trust.
Further, creating a digital Estate Plan will assist you with version management, meaning you don’t have to worry about multiple versions of Wills being discovered and creating confusion for your loved ones.
Last but not least, those who are most concerned with privacy should consider the use of a Trust. Any assets placed in a Trust will pass to your loved ones outside of the probate process, keeping them out of the public eye and preventing avoidable delays. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning and settlement options today!
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