“Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin died in 2018 at age 76 . To the world, the “Respect” singer left a remarkable musical legacy. To her sons, she left a painful legal conflict that dragged on for nearly five years.
We often hear about celebrities who die without a Last Will & Testament, leaving their families in chaos. In contrast, Franklin died with two Wills. One was dated 2010, the other 2014. Each was discovered in a different area of her Detroit area home following her death. Neither document was prepared by an attorney. Both Wills were messily handwritten and difficult to decipher, but this much is clear: each had provisions that favored different sons. Michigan, her state of residence, honors handwritten (holographic) Wills, so that was never an issue. The issue boiled down to this: Which one represented Franklin’s last wishes? Unsurprisingly, her sons disagreed on this point.
Franklin’s son Teddy argued in court that the 2010 Will reflected his mother’s true wishes. This was the document found in a locked cabinet in Franklin’s home, along with other important papers. It named Teddy as the estate executor. (The executor is called a Personal Representative in Florida). It also required that two other sons, Kecalf and Edward, earn a degree in business administration before inheriting anything from her estate. This Will was notarized, but it had no witness signatures.
Sons Kecalf and Edward claimed that the Will dated 2014 was the legally valid one and effectively revoked the earlier version. It eliminated Teddy as executor and instead appointed Kecalf and Edward. It divided Franklin’s estate equally among her three sons, leaving her main residence, furnishings and cars to Kecalf, the only son who has children. This Will was neither notarized nor witnessed. It was discovered in a spiral notebook, stuffed under a sofa cushion in her home. Kecalf and Edward, along with Franklin’s niece, told the court this was not such an odd place to find her Will, because Franklin almost always conducted business, made phone calls, and read and signed documents while sitting on the sofa.
The conflict was finally resolved in the probate court on July 11, nearly five years after the singer’s passing. In a victory for Kecalf and Edward, the jury decided after brief deliberations that the 2014 Will represented Franklin’s last wishes and should be admitted to probate. Below is a screenshot of the 2014 Will (widely available on the internet.)
Franklin’s estate was said to be worth $18 million when she died, but payment of back taxes and legal fees have drained the estate in the ensuing years. The last accounting in 2023 lists the estate as having $4.1 million in real estate and personal property; $73,000 in jewelry; $1 million in cash; and $42,000 in furs. Earnings from copyrights and licensing rights will obviously inflate the value of the estate in the future.
Lessons For You
We can all appreciate Aretha Franklin’s musical talent, but should avoid her estate planning mistakes!
Generally speaking, Florida does not recognize handwritten (holographic) wills. You can read more about them here. Additionally, be sure to store your Will properly and securely. Obviously, it does not belong under a sofa cushion. If at home, put it in a fireproof and waterproof container and make sure your personal representative knows where it is and has access to it. If you store your original document in a safe deposit box, be sure your personal representative has the authority to access the box after you are gone. Otherwise, getting access to the box and retrieving your Will will be a time-consuming process requiring court involvement.
Handling your estate planning without professional legal advice is penny-wise and pound-foolish, regardless of how little or how much you have. An experienced attorney knows the law, knows the questions to ask, and can address any issues that could lead to legal challenges and family discord. Call the Karp Law Firm for a free consultation at 561-625-1100.