Aretha Franklin passed away in August 2018 at the age of seventy-six. August 16th marked the five-year anniversary of the singer’s death, but the battle over whether the famous singer had a Will at her death was only just resolved. Aretha’s estate administration turmoil highlights the pitfalls of attempting to express your wishes in a document that does not satisfy the legal requirements for a validly executed Will.
In Aretha’s case, it was believed for many months after she passed that she did not have a Will at all. If you pass away without a Will, the state “intestacy” laws govern how your assets will be distributed. In Aretha’s case, if she did not have a Will, Michigan intestacy law would direct that her entire estate be divided equally among her four sons.
After her death, Aretha’s four children all agreed to select a cousin to serve as personal representative of the estate. The estate was being administered as if the assets would pass by intestacy law for over six months, at which time two handwritten documents were discovered in Aretha’s home, both of which claimed to be her “Will”. Neither document was prepared by an attorney. The first handwritten document was prepared in 2010 and was discovered in a locked cabinet in Aretha’s home. It was almost a dozen pages long and it was signed by Aretha on every page and notarized. The second handwritten document was prepared in 2014 and was only four pages long. It was purportedly signed on the last page, but with a “smiley face” instead of the name Aretha before her last name Franklin. It was not witnessed or notarized. This second document was found in a spiral notebook underneath a couch cushion in Aretha’s home.
In both handwritten documents, Aretha described her assets and income and detailed her wishes regarding how her assets should be distributed among her sons. However, unlike the distribution scheme under intestacy law, the distributions set forth in both purported Wills were not equal among her four children. In the 2010 document, all four sons were to receive weekly and monthly allowances, but two of the sons were required to “take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” in order to receive their shares of the estate. In the 2014 document, three of the sons would share all music royalties. Further, this 2014 document distributed a greater portion of Aretha’s real and personal property to just one son, including her home in Michigan and four cars that she owned at the time of her death.
Significantly, in this case, there was no argument that Aretha had prepared both documents. However, the “smiley face” in place of her first name in her signature on the 2014 document led to a dispute over whether the document was properly signed. The children in favor of the 2014 document argued that Aretha would not have signed the document at all if it had only been a draft. Ultimately, the dispute went to trial and a Michigan jury determined that the 2014 document memorialized Aretha’s intentions at the time of her death and, therefore, it should constitute her Will for the distribution of her estate.
These cases are extremely fact-sensitive, but the key takeaway here is that it is imperative to have properly prepared and executed estate planning documents in order to avoid (or reduce) family disputes at the time of your death.
Aretha may have been trying to keep her affairs private by writing her wishes out herself, but not having her wishes specified in the proper way ultimately resulted in just the opposite—the contents of all documents, the value of her assets, and the entire dispute made national news. For most of us (non-famous people), privacy may not be an overwhelming concern, but it is still important to not rely on a handwritten document for something as important as the distribution of your assets after your death. This is important for everyone. Many family disputes are not about the dollar amount anyway.
If you would like to discuss your estate plan and ensure that all of your wishes are memorialized properly, please call our office at 856-489-8388.