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Chain of wills: unraveling the Aretha Franklin estate dispute

Dear Clients and Friends,

Music icon Aretha Franklin died in 2018 at the age of 76. This summer, a Michigan probate jury finally decided how the Franklin family is to divide her estate. At first, it was believed that the singer died without a will, and Franklin’s assets would likely have been divided equally among her four sons: Kecalf, Edward and Clarence Franklin, and Ted White Jr. But months after the singer’s death, family members discovered two different hand-written wills outlining her wishes. Handwritten — or “holographic” — wills are legally permissible in some states, including California and Michigan, where Franklin lived. But with the validity of the latter will in question, it was up to the Probate Court to determine her wishes.

The holographic wills found in Franklin’s home included a 2010 version discovered in a locked cabinet. While it had not been prepared by a lawyer, it had Franklin’s signature on every page and had been notarized. However, another will from 2014 was found in a notebook in the couch cushions. Under both versions, Franklin’s sons were to benefit from music royalties and copyrights. The 2014 version, however, left Franklin’s Bloomfield Hills home, as well as the singer’s cars, to son Kecalf. The distribution of other valuable items, such as Franklin’s jewelry and musical instruments, also varied. Franklin’s sons agreed their mother had handwritten and dated the document, two conditions necessary to qualify as a valid will in Michigan. That meant that the jury had to make just two further determinations: deciding whether Franklin had signed the document and whether she intended it to be a will. (According to reports, the 2014 version had Franklin’s signature with a smiley face written inside the letter “A.”)

After less than an hour of deliberation, the jury found the 2014 document was valid as Franklin’s will, representing her true wishes. The verdict ends five years of uncertainty for Franklin’s heirs. Here are some takeaway reminders from the case:

• Prepare a will that outlines how you want your assets to be distributed after you die.

• Get help from us or another experienced estate planning attorney to draft and execute your will or preferably a trust.

• Review your will periodically to make sure it reflects your current wishes.

• Keep your will in a safe place where it can be easily found.

The Franklin family story is a reminder of how important it is to have properly executed estate planning documents. Handwritten wills can be difficult to interpret.



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