All About Estates

You Better Think (Think)…About the Estate Planning Process

This blog was written by Lara Besharat

In August 2018, renowned singer Aretha Franklin died of pancreatic cancer in her home in Detroit, leaving behind an illustrious musical legacy, a strong history of civil rights activism, four children, and an estimated $80-million-dollar fortune. One thing she didn’t leave behind, however, was a will. Or so we thought.

For months, it was believed that the Queen of Soul died intestate, going against the advice of her own lawyer, who, following her death, revealed that he had tried to convince her that “she should do not just a will but a trust while she was still alive” but she just never “got around to [it].” As a result, dictated by Michigan law, her estate was to be split equally between her four sons.

In a truly unexpected turn of events, however, months after Franklin’s untimely demise, three separate wills were uncovered in her Detroit residence, two of which were uncovered in a locked cabinet, while the third and most recent, was discovered under the late singer’s living room couch cushions. All three documents were submitted earlier this month to the Oakland County Probate Court by her estate’s attorney.

While uncovering these documents has the potential to clarify Franklin’s wishes and aid in the administration of her estate, the estate’s status of intestacy continues to hang in the balance. There still remains a question of legitimacy, since, as it turns out, all three were handwritten. The most recent of which, dated March 31, 2014, was scribbled across four pages of a spiral notebook, in messy handwriting, with sections haphazardly scratched out and various notes scrawled in the margins.

Poor handwriting and a questionable hiding place aside, Franklin’s will may be honoured if it is accepted as a valid holographic will. The state of Michigan accepts holographic wills provided that they are dated and signed by the testator, that material portions of the document are written in the testator’s handwriting, and that it is evident that the document is intended to serve as the testator’s will. Franklin’s 2014 will appears to satisfy all of these requirements, and a hearing on the matter is scheduled for June 12th.

One thing is for certain – whether the wills are declared valid or not, the drama that has encircled Franklin’s estate since her passing will soldier on. Aside from the inevitable concerns surrounding the estate’s administration without a guiding document, the estate has been embroiled in controversy from the beginning, being forced to tackle a claim made against them by the IRS, alleging that the estate owes millions in back taxes and penalties. Meanwhile, just days after her passing, Franklin’s sons filed a document to the court listing themselves as interested parties in the estate. Now, upon discovery of these three wills, a dispute seems to be heating up between those four sons, as two them are objecting to the handwritten documents.

Outlined in the Petition submitted to the court, Franklin’s sons have been made aware of the documents, but a resolution on their validity could not be reached. Unfortunately, now, with Franklin’s heirs seemingly split on the issue, there is a high probability that the estate could be dragged into many months, or even years, of expensive legal proceedings, pitting brother against brother.

Outspoken and unapologetic in many aspects of her life, it’s a wonder why Franklin didn’t make certain that her wishes were explicitly documented. Ultimately, whether or not the wills are deemed valid, the estate is likely to suffer. Either the wills are unenforceable and the estate will continue to be administered as though Franklin died intestate, with no document to specify her true wishes, or one of the wills validly becomes the estate’s guiding document, prompting a potentially nasty and costly dispute between Franklin’s heirs. Either way, the estate is unlikely to be settled any time soon.

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