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R-E-S-P-E-C-T the Will: Lessons from Aretha Franklin’s Estate

September 21, 2023

When Aretha Franklin passed away in 2018, it was believed that she had no will. That meant her estate would be divided among her surviving heirs – four sons, one of them disabled and under legal guardianship. However, several years after her death, two different handwritten “holographic” wills were discovered, resulting in a court battle as her sons disagreed over which one was valid. While the jury has now decided that the will from 2014 is enforceable, the matter isn’t over. Aretha Franklin’s estate must still be administered and distributed according to the valid will, which could take significant additional time and money. While few people have an estate as valuable as Aretha’s, anyone can learn lessons from the way her estate was handled.

Lack of Estate Planning 

According to public sources, Aretha resisted efforts to assist her in estate planning, which has had serious consequences. Proper estate planning enables individuals to ensure their wishes are followed regarding the distribution of their assets. They can also tailor their plan to account for various circumstances, including the desire to minimize taxes, protect assets for heirs, and reduce the risks of litigation where there may be challenges to a will by heirs. Aretha lost many opportunities to take advantage of favorable tax laws and simplify her estate administration by failing to develop a comprehensive estate plan with the assistance of an attorney.

The Problem with Holographic Wills

The estate was further complicated because the two wills found in Aretha’s home were holographic. A holographic will is a handwritten will that is in the testator’s handwriting, and signed by the testator (or at least acknowledged by the testator, depending upon the state). Such wills are very unusual and are not valid in most states.

In Michigan, they are enforceable, provided that they are dated, and signed by the testator, and the material portions of the document are in the testator’s handwriting. However, in Aretha’s case, there were additional problems because she drafted two wills over the span of four years which provided for different dispositions and different executors of her estate, and each of which presented issues that raised questions about their validity. As a result, the nominated executors of each will have to litigate the issue of whether the will from 2010 or 2014 should be admitted to probate. While both wills met the Michigan requirements, the 2014 will was declared valid after a jury trial. Had she had a typed will that was properly executed and physically destroyed the prior will, these litigation delays and expenses could have been avoided.

Lessons Learned

Even though the trial is over, the failure to properly deal with estate planning has caused irreversible damage. 

First, the estate has paid a large amount in taxes. With such a valuable estate, there were likely many potential tax-saving strategies, such as utilizing lifetime trusts and asset management entities, that could have saved money had she sought legal advice. She also may have missed opportunities for special needs planning for her disabled son. 

Aretha didn’t tell anyone that she had a will and where she kept it. As a result, it was thought that she died intestate. Her estate was administered under intestacy laws for several years before the wills were found. The cost to administer her large estate has been substantial, particularly since it continues to generate income from song rights and there have been significant delays in closing the estate. 

Had she created a single, clearly labeled will (holographic or otherwise) and disclosed its location to a trusted person, her estate could have avoided unnecessary time and money spent on administration, and litigation amongst her sons. This lack of planning and clarity also contributed to family feuding which has financial and emotional ramifications. 

Your estate may be nowhere near the size of Aretha Franklin’s, but you, and your family, can still benefit from thoughtful estate planning. A comprehensive estate plan drafted by an experienced attorney is the best way to ensure you preserve your assets for your heirs and that your estate can be probated efficiently. If you need an estate plan or want to update your existing plan, contact us for a consultation. 

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