“You Better ‘Think’ About Preparing an Estate Plan”- Celebrity Estate Plans (Part 8): Aretha Franklin

When legendary musician Aretha Franklin died in 2018, her family believed she did not have a Will.  When going through her home in May 2019, two handwritten documents were discovered that appeared to express her last wishes.  Three of Franklin’s four sons, Kecalf, Edward, and Ted, disputed which document should prevail as her will.  Her fourth son, Clarence, did not participate in the proceedings.

The singer’s purported 2010 will, which was found in a locked cabinet at her home, provided for monthly allowances to each of her four sons and required Kecalf and Edward to take certain business classes or get a certificate or degree to take from the estate.  It did not address how royalties and other estate assets, including personal property, would be divided.  Franklin’s son Ted advocated that this document be admitted for probate because, as twelve pages, it was more extensive and Franklin signed each page.

The purported 2014 will, which was tucked in a spiral-bound notebook in Franklin’s couch, allows Franklin’s sons, except Clarence, to receive equal shares of her music royalties, and allowed Kecalf and Franklin’s grandchildren to receive more of her personal property, her home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and her vehicles.  The document was only four pages and was initialed by Franklin at the end of the document, with a smiley face replacing the “A”.  Thus, the jury was also tasked with deciding whether this counted as a valid signature.

Ultimately, a six-person jury determined that the 2014 will should be probated, ending many years of disputes for the Franklin family.  What would the outcome have been if Franklin were a New Jersey or Pennsylvania resident?  Like Michigan, New Jersey permits holographic, or handwritten, wills, so the outcome could have been the same.  However, Pennsylvania does not allow for holographic wills, meaning that Franklin’s estate would have passed under the state’s intestacy statute, even though documents were found expressing Franklin’s wishes.