Legendary singer Aretha Franklin was thought to have died without a will, but the recent discovery of handwritten documents in her home is calling that into question. A representative of her estate has asked a Michigan probate court to determine if any of the documents could be considered a valid will.
When Franklin died August 16, 2018, at age 76, her four sons filed paperwork in Oakland County, Michigan, indicating that she died intestate — that is, without a will. The sons nominated Franklin’s niece to serve as the personal representative of the estate. When someone dies without a will, the estate is divided according to state law. Under Michigan law, an unmarried decedent’s estate is distributed to his or her children. (Franklin had been married twice but long since divorced.) At the time of her death, the “Queen of Soul” was estimated to be worth $80 million.)
According to recent court filings, however, two handwritten documents dated 2010 and a third one dated 2014 were discovered in Franklin’s home (with the 2014 document reportedly found under the couch cushions). The estate’s personal representative — called an executor in some states — is asking the court to determine if any of the documents are valid wills under Michigan law. The documents distribute her assets to family, but are hard to read and contain tangents and asides. Two of Franklin’s sons are reportedly contesting the documents.
Michigan law allows wills that are “holographic” — handwritten and not witnessed. To be valid under Michigan law, a holographic will must be dated, signed by the testator, be in the testator’s handwriting, and clearly be intended to be a will. It is not clear whether any of these documents will meet this standard. There is also confusion about the personal representative. While Franklin’s niece is currently serving in the role, one of the documents names one of Franklin’s sons as representative.
All of this confusion and extra expense could have been avoided if Franklin had consulted an attorney to create an estate plan. With a good estate plan, she also may have been able to keep the details of her estate private instead of having the battle play out in public.
Proper estate planning with a qualified professional is important even if you don’t have Aretha Franklin’s assets. It allows you, while you are still living, to ensure that your property will go to the people you want, in the way you want, and when you want. It permits you to save as much as possible on taxes, court costs, and attorneys’ fees; and it gives you the comfort that your loved ones can mourn your loss without also being burdened with unnecessary red tape and financial confusion — and not have surprises suddenly turn up in the sofa cushions.