How many Wills have you got? The Aretha Franklin court case

 26 July 2023
How many Wills have you got? The Aretha Franklin court case

When legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin died from pancreatic cancer in 2018, she appeared to leave no Will (link to website page on Wills). However, nine months later, a Will dated in 2010 was found in a locked cabinet at her home by her niece Sabrina Owens. Owens also discovered a second Will dated 2014, written in a spiral notebook hidden under sofa cushions at the singer’s home.

Which will?

Both Wills are in the same handwritten format including what a Guardian article describes as “scribbles and hard-to-decipher passages.” As the BBC website explains:

“Such a condition would make them inadmissible in most states, but Michigan law allows for handwritten wills as long as they meet other criteria.”

In both Wills, Franklin’s sons share the revenue from the singer’s considerable catalogue of music and recordings. Where they differ is the proportions of the shares and conditions.

2010 v 2014

The notarised 2010 Will appointed Owens and Franklins’ third son, Ted White II, as co-executors. It also requires the singer’s second and fourth sons, Kecalf and Edward Franklin, to "take business classes and get a certificate or a degree”.

Mr White had maintained that this was the valid will, as:

“With all the time I spent working with her administratively ... every other document that she ever signed was something that was done conventionally and legally.”

Kecalf and Edward maintain that the 2014 Will is valid, despite its unconventional format and hiding place. In this Will, Kecalf become a co-executor in place of his brother, and his grandchildren would inherit his mother’s mansion valued at $1.2million.

Franklin’s first son, Clarence, who lives in an assisted living facility, is not involved in the case. According to his guardian’s lawyer, the family have “Reached a settlement that gives Clarence a percentage of the estate without regard to the outcome of the will contest.”

Taking it to court

The brothers took the issue to court to determine which Will should be deemed valid. As a result, Owens quit her role administrating her aunt’s estate in 2020, saying:

“Given my aunt's love of family and desire for privacy, this is not what she would have wanted for us, nor is it what I want".

This week, a jury at a Michigan court said that that the 2014 sofa version is valid, and can be used as her legal last will and testament. The dispute has caused tensions within the family, and it’s taken a considerable time to be resolved. As Kecalf said:

“We just want to exhale right now. It's been a long five years for my family, my children."

Since the singer’s death, Franklin’s estate managers have been involved in paying bills and settling millions in unpaid taxes whilst managing income from royalties. However, the estate has still fallen in value from an estimated $80million in 2018, to a value of under $6million, according to an inventory filed in court.

Making sure your Will is valid

According to the Gov website:

“For your will to be legally valid, you must:

  • be 18 or over
  • make it voluntarily
  • be of sound mind
  • make it in writing
  • sign it in the presence of 2 witnesses who are both over 18
  • have it signed by your 2 witnesses, in your presence”
  • not leave your witnesses (or their married partners) anything in your will”

However, these basic criteria won’t ensure that your Will clearly lays out your wishes or won’t be disputed. By using a professional Will writer, you can ensure that your Will is as “nailed down” as possible in terms of bequests, legacies and who gets what. It also makes it easier to come back later and update your Will if family circumstances change, such as the arrival of grandchildren or an adult child gets divorced.

Paul Hammond is a member of the Society of Will Writers (link to previous blog) and would be happy to help you draw up a will that truly reflects your wishes - with no need for side scribbles or scatter cushions!

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