14 Sep Did Aretha Franklin’s Last Wishes Get R-E-S-P-E-C-T After Will Fight?
Aretha Franklin died in 2018 leaving 2 handwritten wills resulting in an expensive legal battle between her children over which will would prevail. In July 2023, a Michigan jury decided her most recent handwritten will (written by her in 2014) found in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion of Franklin’s home by her niece (after the Queen of Soul’s death) was valid. None of her 4 children disagreed that both wills were in Franklin’s handwriting. Similar to Michigan law, handwritten wills (also known as holographic wills) can be valid under Texas law if wholly in the handwriting of the deceased (unlike type written wills).
Franklin’s first handwritten will was notarized and found in a locked cabinet. Lawyers for Franklin’s son, Ted White, Jr., argued since it was notarized and found in a more secure location that the 2010 handwritten will should prevail. The jury disagreed. As in Texas, Michigan law does not require notarization of handwritten wills. Furthermore, it does not matter where a will is found – even if found under the cushions of a couch as in this case. Notwithstanding the jury determination, the judge left open the possibility of incorporating some of the terms of the 2010 will into the 2014 will. This seems unusual to this author.
Franklin’s first will provided that each of Franklin’s 4 sons (Ted White, Jr., Clarence Franklin, Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin) were to get a weekly and monthly allowance although Edward and Kecalf were required to take business classes and get a certificate or degree in order to collect from Franklin’s multi-million-dollar estate.
The 2014 will that was deemed valid provided that it was no longer required Kecalf and Edward take business classes and get a certificate. There was also a bequest of Franklin’s home (valued at $1.1 million at the time of her death but worth more now) and her cars (2 Cadillacs, a Mercedes Benz and a Thunderbird convertible) to Kecalf. Furthermore, the 2014 will provided equal shares of the residue to only 3 of her sons (her son Clarence was not included as he has a mental illness and presently has a guardian). However, Clarence’s brothers have all agreed to take care and provide for him. The Queen of Soul’s music royalties and licensing rights are the most valuable asset of the estate.
Although Franklin’s holographic will was deemed valid, it was a poor business decision to not have professional advisors (financial, attorneys and accountants) in her planning. The administrative and legal fees surely exceed $1 million – not to mention her estate has already paid $8 million to the IRS. Certainly there would have been clarity if an estate planner had prepared a will or trust on her behalf. Furthermore, financial advisors, accountants and attorneys could have given her options to reduce taxes. Franklin’s failure to plan also resulted in a rift between her children – not to mention the delay in settling her estate. Even online form wills are not state-specific. As a result, it is not unusual that the cost of probate is greater (far more than the cost of preparing in addition to the delay in settling the estate) when there is either a holographic will or an online form will. There is no certainty that the last wishes and intent of Aretha Franklin were followed. You don’t have to be wealthy to make sure your last wishes get the R-E-S-P-E-C-T you desire and make it easier for those whom you care about – it just takes a willingness to make sure your legacy will be honored.
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