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Who inherited Aretha Franklin’s estate after a five-year court battle?

by Legacy Plan
July 27, 2023

Legendary singer Aretha Franklin passed away at age 76 in 2018, but her estate planning mistakes and the ongoing dispute among her sons have kept her death in the headlines ever since.

In July 2023, the saga over the estate of the global superstar, known for hits like “Think,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Respect,” took its latest twist, with a Michigan probate court judge ruling that one of the three handwritten wills discovered after her death was indeed valid.

But after five years, the media spotlight focused on the battle among her children over her last will and testament is not the swan song Franklin, known for being a deeply private person, would have envisioned.

A few months after her death, a handwritten will, dated March 2014, was found in a spiral notebook stuffed underneath some cushions. Soon thereafter, two more handwritten wills, both dated 2010, were discovered in a locked cabinet. Unwittingly setting up a court battle, Franklin never left instructions on where to find her will, and she certainly never mentioned which of the three that she had created was the one to use.

In fact, after Franklin’s death in August 2018, one of her attorneys initially reported that she had died without creating a formal estate plan, and he was unaware that any wills even existed. The initial presumption reported in the media was that her estate would be divided among her four sons according to the state of Michigan’s intestacy laws. All of that changed with the discovery of her handwritten wills and led to years of highly publicized legal wrangling and disputes among her survivors.

“I was after her for a number of years to do a trust. It would have expedited things and kept them out of probate and kept things private,” Wilson told a Detroit newspaper at the time. But, despite the urging of her attorney, Franklin obviously didn’t follow his advice. Instead of taking the minimal step of creating a formal, typewritten will, Aretha apparently decided a do-it-your-self strategy would be adequate.

Her strategy failed, however, as her sons disagreed over which of the three wills should be honored. As a result, the intimate details of her estate attracted the media glare that typically follows the death of a celebrity. The probate judge determined that all versions of Franklin’s handwritten wills indicated her four sons would share in income for music and copyrights.

What can we learn from Aretha Franklin’s estate planning?

Franklin’s legacy as the Queen of Soul is unchallenged, but her posthumous saga sheds a bright light on the complications caused by inadequate estate planning.

There are many lessons to learn from Franklin’s estate planning debacle that highlight the importance of thorough and legally sound planning. Let’s look at five key lessons to learn from Franklin’s situation and how her heirs could have avoided probate’s hassles, expense, delays, publicity and lack of privacy and control in the years that followed her death. These five lessons deal with the importance of a formal will, regularly updating your estate plan, using trusts for privacy and efficiency, the dangers of do-it-yourself estate planning and the importance of proactive planning.

What is the importance of a formal will?

last will and testament document

Franklin’s case underscores the crucial need for a formal, typewritten and properly executed will. Handwritten wills, also known as holographic wills, are accepted in some states, but they often lead to disputes and complications because of their informal nature. Unclear language, confusion over the testator’s intent and questions of legitimacy are typical problems. The long and contentious legal bickering among Franklin’s sons could have been avoided with a formal will outlining clear instructions.

Franklin would have been better served to consider some of the many benefits of executing a formal last will and testament. She could have specified to whom she intended to leave her assets, whether her beneficiaries are family members, friends, associates or charities that she chose to support. She also could have named a personal representative, also known as an executor, to administer her estate. Again, this decision was left to the discretion of the probate judge to determine who would distribute her assets and personal property, pay her debts, file her taxes and other obligations.

Also, if you create a formal will, make sure it is stored in a place – other than a random locked cabinet or underneath the couch cushions – where it can be accessed by your personal representative.

Why should an estate plan be updated regularly?

Even though Franklin’s 2014 handwritten was deemed valid, it likely didn’t reflect changes in her life and estate that occurred in the four years before her death. Your assets, family situation and the law are likely to change as life goes on. That’s why estate plans should be updated regularly, particularly following significant events like the birth of a child, a marriage, a divorce, the acquisition of substantial assets or changes in estate law.

When you fail to update your estate plan regularly due to life events, your wishes may not be carried out after your death. An out-of-date will could lead to disputes among your loved ones and make it difficult for them to receive your assets as you intended.

Experts recommend reviewing your estate plan every few years or whenever there is a significant change in your life to ensure your estate plan always meets your current needs.

How do trusts offer privacy and efficiency?

As pointed out by her attorney, a trust could have kept Franklin’s estate out of probate, away from public scrutiny – and out of the headlines. Unlike wills, which become part of the public record once filed with the court, trusts are legal entities that offer privacy as their details remain confidential. A properly structured trust could have ensured a swift, private and efficient transfer of Franklin's assets to her heirs. Trusts are especially useful for people who value their privacy.

Because trusts bypass the probate process, they also help to streamline the administration of your estate after your death. This is because trusts can be used to manage your assets and distribute them to your beneficiaries according to your detailed wishes. Keep in mind that it is important to consult with an experienced attorney who can help you understand the specific benefits and drawbacks of trusts in your situation.

Here are some specific examples of how trusts can offer privacy and efficiency:

  • A trust can be used to hold assets in a way that keeps them out of the public record. This can be important for people who want to keep their financial information private, such as celebrities or business owners.
  • A trust can be used to manage assets for a beneficiary who is not yet able to manage their own finances, such as a minor child or a person with a disability. This can help to ensure that the beneficiary's assets are managed in a responsible and efficient manner.
  • A trust can be used to distribute assets to beneficiaries according to specific instructions, such as a formula or a set of rules. This can help to avoid disputes among beneficiaries after the death of the trustor.

What are the dangers of do-it-yourself estate planning?

While drafting her own will might have seemed a good idea to Franklin at the time, the ensuing confusion demonstrates the perils of a do-it-yourself approach to estate planning. Estate law is complex, and mistakes or oversights can lead to disputes and potential legal battles. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney can help ensure that all documents are legally sound and that all potential issues are addressed.

Sure, DIY estate planning can be tempting, especially if you're on a tight budget. However, there are some dangers associated with DIY estate planning that you should be aware of before you get started.

Those dangers include:

  • Your documents may not be valid if you don’t follow the correct legal procedures and formalities, such as witnessing and notarization.
  • DIY estate planning kits often don’t cover all of the important aspects of estate planning. This could mean that your documents don’t address your specific needs or that they don’t provide for your loved ones in the way you want.
  • Because they are not customized, DIY estate planning kits often use ambiguous legal jargon that can be difficult to understand. It can lead to confusion and disagreements among your loved ones after your death. What’s worse is that non-attorneys are prone to make mistakes with legal documents. Even if you're careful, it's possible to make mistakes when you're creating your own estate planning documents. This can lead to expensive litigation or financial losses for your loved ones.

Why is being proactive about estate planning essential?

Despite having been ill with pancreatic cancer for a number of years, Franklin did not establish a formal, comprehensive estate plan. This lack of planning has led to delays, years of administrative expenses and a loss of privacy. Proactive and early planning is essential to ensure that your wishes are carried out and your loved ones are spared unnecessary stress and confusion.

For artists such as Aretha Franklin, their estates may include music copyright and royalty rights, which can increase in value after their death. For large estates, like those of wealthy celebrities, estate taxes can take a significant chunk out of the value of an estate. In Franklin's situation, her $80 million estate was subject to estate taxes because it exceeded the federal estate tax exemption limit. Proper planning can help minimize the impact of taxes. Royalties and taxes are just a few reasons why pre-planning strategies would have been more useful in Franklin’s case than post-death court battles.

In fact, is important to start planning your estate early, even if you are young and healthy. This will give you time to consider your options and to make sure that your documents are up-to-date. Proactive estate planning begins by considering who would serve as your surrogate decision-maker for health care and financial matters if you were to become incapacitated and who would handle and your affairs and distribute and receive your assets upon your passing. Communication among family members also is a part of proactive estate planning so that your loved ones understand your wishes and they are carried out after your death without family disharmony, like the kind that Franklin’s family has endured.

While estate planning is often viewed as a task that can be put off, the reality is we never know when it will become urgently necessary. Aretha Franklin was seriously ill for several years before her death, yet she didn't finalize her estate plans. Her situation proves that delays can result in confusion, disputes and unnecessary legal costs after one’s death.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at legacyassuranceplan.com.

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