Carley’s Corner – Aretha Franklin’s Estate Blunder

 In Estate Planning, Executor Help

On August 16th 2018, Aretha Franklin, a music icon passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. You may know her as the Queen of Soul, writing numerous hits such as Respect, Freeway of Love, and I Say a Little Prayer, she quickly became a household name. Aretha Franklin was not only an international sensation, but she was also a mother of four boys, having her first child at the young age of twelve. Aretha was worth an estimated $80 million when she passed away in 2018, which makes her story even more of a head scratcher – she didn’t have a Last Will & Testament to protect any of it! 

When Aretha passed away, there was no Will filed with any of her attorneys. In accordance with Michigan Intestacy Laws, her estate was to be equally split between her four sons, and the family agreed to appoint their cousin (Aretha’s niece), Sabrina Owens as the estate executor. In May 2019, chaos struck when Owens and an attorney revealed that they had found two handwritten Wills located in Aretha’s home. One was from 2010 and was locked in a cabinet, and the other was from 2014 and was found in a notebook hidden under her couch cushions. I know what you are thinking, are those really “Wills”? Believe it or not, they may be! Michigan law does not require notarization or witnesses to make a valid Will, only that it must be signed and can be proven that the deceased wrote it.  

These newfound Wills were ground-breaking in the administration of the estate. The 2010 version detailed regular allowances and bequests of specific items to her sons, however she also left detailed notes about those who have wronged her. There was a specific note that her ex-husband, Edward Jordan Sr., was to receive nothing as he was an absent father to her oldest son Clarence. The 2014 version that was found under the couch cushions simply divvies up her assets among family members. It also states that her three youngest sons are to determine how much money their oldest brother Clarence requires as for decades, has lived in a group home due to chronic mental illness and is represented by a court-appointed attorney.  

If the estate was divided according to the Michigan Intestacy Law, Clarence would receive one-fourth share of the estate, just like her other three sons. However, with the handwritten Wills in dispute, he could receive nothing at all and see his full share go to his brothers instead. In the 2014 handwritten Will, Ms. Franklin had instructed her sons to release weekly welfare checks to Clarence and oversee his needs. 

On top of the confusion with beneficiaries, the 2014 Will listed a different executor for the estate! There were three names written down, with the first two being scratched out. The confusion led to a big dispute with executors claiming others were mishandling the estate and had failed to conduct an inventory of assets. In January 2020, Sabrina Owens quit from the executor role saying that the family feud was “not what Aretha would have wanted for us.” In March 2020, a judge appointed Reginald Turner, a Detroit attorney as the temporary personal representative for the estate. A trial is due to start in August 2021 to decide which Will is valid and who the court grants control of the estates business matters going forward. The estate has also struck a deal with the IRS to finally pay the $7.8 million in unpaid taxes.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS ESTATE? 

Frankin’s estate was turned upside down with the discovery of the two handwritten Wills that were completely unknown to her family and friends. The Wills truly changed everything, and the family squabble has led to a prolonged estate administration. While we anxiously await the hearing in August for answers, the story of Aretha Franklin’s estate is one that has a few lessons for us to take away.  

  1. Be prepared and do your estate planning early. The entire dispute could have been easily avoided had Aretha created an official Will and outlined her wishes clearly.  
  1. Communicate with family members and with who you are naming as executor so there are no surprises when the time comes.  
  1. Seek assistance and guidance from Professionals when you have a potentially complicated estate so that they can help you come up with a successful plan and strategy to move forward. 

Be sure to check back often for more estate stories and lessons like Aretha Franklin’s. If you find yourself needing Estate Administration guidance, we’re here to help. Contact us today! 

 

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