Aretha: A Will or Not a Will?

Screen Shot 2019-07-26 at 11.27.48 AMBehold a real-life cautionary tale of the hazards of no Will or a poorly drafted Will. When soul and R&B icon Aretha Franklin died last year, her family though she had no Will.

Ms. Franklin left behind four sons, but no guidance on how to distribute her reported $80 million estate. Her sons filed paperwork in Michigan stating that she died intestate – that is, without a Will.

They nominated Franklin’s niece to serve as the personal representative of the estate. Under Michigan law, Franklin’s assets and income would be divided equally among her four sons

That structure, and the peace it preserved within the family, has been upended by the discovery in May 2019 of a series of handwritten “Wills” that could significantly alter the estate, replace the executor, and change each son’s inheritance. The scrawled documents – found in a locked cabinet and under the sofa cushions of Franklin’s home in suburban Detroit – were recently submitted to a probate judge to determine whether they qualify as valid Wills.

The possibility of wholesale changes to the estate has already stirred divisions among Ms. Franklin’s sons, with two of them supporting the most recent Will, dated in 2014, and two opposing it. Under that Will, the distributions to the sons are not equal. One son with special needs appears to have been left out of any inheritance.

Among the problems with the newly discovered documents is that they are handwritten, with things scratched out and blank spaces, in some places nearly illegible handwriting, and a lack of clarity about her wishes for the distribution and management of a number of her assets, such as income and royalties from her music and other business interests.

The case again has highlighted the complications faced by the estates of celebrities who leave no will. (Remember Prince?) Although few of us have an estate as complicated as hers, the problems created by a poorly drafted Will are the same for all of us. It is unclear why Ms. Franklin chose to hand-write her Wills; her lawyers say they frequently urged her to plan her estate; one even went so far as to draft Wills and Trusts for her to consider, but she was not interested.

Even if the judge determines that her 2014 Will is valid, there is still much that can be disputed, both in interpreting the terms of the Will, and about what is not mentioned in the Will. Unless the sons can all come to an agreement on the terms of the Will (which might include altering some of the terms), a judge or jury will have to decide its terms, and her intent. To get an idea of how muddled the Wills are, google “Aretha Franklin wills”; most of the news articles have excerpts from the 2014 Will, and it is a hot mess!

What is the take-away for those of us who do not have such complex estates? It is the same as it is for Aretha’s estate; work with a qualified elder law or estate planning attorney to put in place estate planning documents which lay out your wishes clearly and unambiguously, and which can even offer protection of assets.

Hand-written Wills, although perfectly legal, are often worse than no Will, because they often do not consider or account for all the assets, or deal with them in a clear, coherent manner, and they can give rise to significant and costly litigation, not to mention often unintended ill-will within the family.

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