When Aretha Franklin—the Queen of Soul—died in 2018, it was widely reported that the singer had no will. Don Wilson, a Los Angeles lawyer who worked for Franklin for nearly 30 years, told The Guardian, “I tried to convince her that she should do not just a will but a trust while she was still alive. She never told me, ‘No, I don’t want to do one.’ She understood the need. It just didn’t seem to be something she got around to.”
Many considered it remarkable that Franklin, whose wealth was estimated to be worth $80 million at the time, had not engaged in any estate planning.
Only, it turns out that she really had.
In May 2019, two handwritten wills were found in her home. One, dated 2010, was found in a locked cabinet. A second document, dated 2014, was found in a notebook in her couch cushions.
Those wills became the focus of a lawsuit involving Franklin’s children. Franklin was unmarried at her death. She divorced her first husband, Ted White, in 1969, and subsequently divorced her second husband, Glynn Turman, in 1984. She was survived by four sons—Clarence Franklin, Edward Franklin, Kecalf Franklin, and Ted White Jr.
In court documents, sons Edward and Kecalf argued that the 2014 will was controlling, while White maintained that the 2010 document was intended to be Franklin’s actual will. Clarence, who reportedly has special needs and is represented by a legal guardian, did not participate in the lawsuit.
Under Michigan law, had there been no will—referred to as intestacy—Franklin’s estate would have passed in equal shares to her sons. That’s because when you don’t have a will, state law will determine who is entitled to your property.
The 2010 will divided the estate more or less equally between Franklin’s sons. However, under the 2014 will, three of her sons—not including Clarence—stood to benefit from Franklin’s estate, sharing income related to her music. Kecalf would also inherit his mother’s Michigan home, valued at more than $1.1 million at the singer’s death, and her cars.
The matter played out in probate courts on paper for years before being heard in a Michigan courtroom this year. The trial took just two days, resulting in a jury ruling that the 2014 document was Franklin’s will.
At trial, attorney Craig Smith pointed to the first line of the 2014 will, which had been blown up on posters for the jury. He noted, “Says right here: ‘This is my will.’ She’s speaking from the grave, folks.”
None of the parties disputed whether Franklin had written the document. The quarrel was whether the 2014 will met the criteria to be considered a valid will under Michigan law.
Handwritten wills are sometimes called holographic wills. Not all states recognize handwritten wills, and those that do may have limitations. For example, under Arkansas law, a holographic will may be considered valid if at least three credible disinterested witnesses vouch for the handwriting and signature of the testator. In Maryland, a holographic will is only valid for those serving in the U.S. armed services if it’s signed outside of the U.S. and its territories—the will is void one year after a military discharge.
(Another kind of will, called a nuncupative will, is a will that’s delivered verbally to witnesses. It’s also only accepted as valid in a handful of states.)
Michigan law—where Franklin was a resident—does allow holographic wills. Under Michigan state law, a holographic will is valid if it’s signed and dated, and the material portions are in the testator’s handwriting (a testator or testatrix is the legal term for a person who makes a will). A holographic does not need to be witnessed in Michigan to be valid.
White had argued that the document wasn’t intended to be a final will. But Charles L. McKelvie, a lawyer for Kecalf, asked, “Why would anyone sign a document if it was just a draft?”
A jury agreed.
The matter is likely far from over. One reason? Some portions of the will are said to be difficult to read. Judge Jennifer S. Callaghan said that even though the 2014 will is valid, White can still argue that portions of the 2010 estate planning should be incorporated.
Additionally, Kecalf must still apply to serve as executor of the estate (a family member serving as the personal representative stepped down in 2020).
As for Clarence? He stood to lose the most under the 2014 will, although the document supposedly includes a direction for Franklin’s sons to “oversee his needs.” According to Smith, his brothers have agreed to support him.
The spat over the two wills was just one of many challenges the Franklin family has faced when dealing with the estate. In 2018, the IRS filed protective claims against the estate for back taxes for the tax years 2012 through 2018. In 2021, the estate reached a deal with the tax agency, and a final check was reportedly delivered in 2022.
The family can finally breathe a bit, having cleared one hurdle. But it took five years to get there. It’s a cautionary tale about the importance of being thoughtful and deliberate with your tax and estate planning—no matter how big your bank account.