When legendary singer and civil-rights icon Aretha Franklin passed away in August 2018, amidst the solemn remembrances and celebrations of life, it was widely reported that Franklin had left behind no will or other legal instrument to govern the administration of her estate, which was estimated to be worth some $80 million and included her legendary musical catalogue. The estate of the “Queen of Soul”—it appeared—was headed to probate, with all her worldly possessions—including the rights to some of the most celebrated recordings of all time—to be divvied out among her heirs according to pre-established legal principles rather than her specific wishes.
Despite the absence of a will, the administration of Aretha Franklin’s estate had proceeded relatively amicably, with her sons agreeing to appoint Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens, as the estate’s personal representative, according to the Associated Press.
However, all of that was turned on its head when, on May 3, 2019, Owens stumbled upon the key to a locked cupboard located in Franklin’s Michigan home. Like a scene out of a movie, Owens unlocked the cupboard to discover two separate wills, both of which were handwritten and dated 2010. One of the wills discovered in the cupboard reportedly is notarized and is 11 pages in length.
Adding to the confusion, later that same day, Owens says she found, concealed beneath a sofa cushion in the living room of the same home, a third handwritten will, this one dated 2014. This document—which features numerous cross-outs, revisions, and margin entries—specifically states that she wanted her son, Kecalf Franklin, to administer her estate.
Cue intrafamily conflict.
Because of contradictions among the wills themselves, as well as the family’s inability to come to agreement on their validity, the ultimate outcome remains murky on a host of issues, including a matter as basic as who will be the representative of the estate. This is just the sort of confusion that proper, thoughtful estate planning aims to avoid.
The situation is complicated by Michigan state law’s placing a greater emphasis than other jurisdictions on fulfilling what the court views to be the deceased party’s last wishes, rather than relying on purely legalistic principles pertaining to a properly executed will.
“We all think of your standard will where you go into an attorney’s office and get two witnesses to sign it,” Michigan estate lawyer Charyn Hain told the Associated Press. “Michigan allows for wills that aren’t completely compliant.”
Patrick Simasko, another Michigan estate specialist who spoke to the AP, agrees.
“If it’s clear and convincing evidence of your intentions, it’s a perfectly valid document,” he said. “The court wants to do everything in its power to fulfill the wishes of the person who passed away.”
A striking example of this emphasis on the decedent’s intentions under Michigan law is the case of Duane Francis Horton II. Before committing suicide in December 2015, Horton left a handwritten note that referred the reader to a message typed on Horton’s cell phone. The long note contained a paragraph describing how Horton would like his personal assets to be distributed upon his death.
Despite no portion of the note on the cell phone—including the signature—being written in Horton’s own hand, a Michigan state court of appeals ruled in July 2018 that the message constituted Horton’s last will and testament.
“The Court held that the note was distinctly testamentary in character and the document itself provides support for the conclusion that decedent intended for the note to constitute his will,” LexisNexis reported at the time.
Unfortunately, all of this only means greater confusion for the estate of Aretha Franklin.
Franklin’s surviving family members reportedly have expressed conflicting opinions about the disposition of certain estate assets, with one of Franklin’s potential heirs contesting the niece Owens’ intention to sell a piece of property for $325,000.
Despite Aretha Franklin’s immense fame and one-of-a-kind talent, the situation involving her estate is unfortunately far from uncommon, and it serves as a reminder of the turmoil that can arise among even the most close-knit families when the wishes of a deceased loved one have not been made clear through properly executed estate planning documents.
In another development that unfortunately is all too common in the absence of proper estate and tax planning, the IRS is also reportedly looking into Franklin’s past tax filings, having already submitted a claim in December 2018 for $6 million in taxes it says Ms. Franklin owed to the federal government.
The problems the estate now faces with regards to the IRS also underscore the importance of incorporating appropriate tax strategies into any estate plan in order to ensure that one leaves behind the assets one has spent a lifetime building and not a legacy of familial conflict, legal headaches, and unresolved tax issues.
You can see digital copies of Aretha Franklin’s handwritten wills here.
White, E. (21 May 2019). Handwritten Wills Shake Up Aretha Franklin’s Estate. Associated Press; Arkin, D. (23 May 2019). Aretha Franklin’s Handwritten Wills Raise Tangled Legal Questions. NBC News; Nolen, G. (1 August 2018). Michigan: Man’s Final Words on Cell Phone Count as Last Will & Testament. LexisNexis.