Did Aretha Franklin Die Without a Will? A Cautionary Tale for Estate Planning

Too little estate planning can put your heirs in a bind and tie up your estate in time-consuming and costly probate litigation. As the legal saga of Aretha Franklin’s estate shows, inadequate estate planning—in particular, planning that introduces uncertainty about your final wishes—can also be highly problematic. A popular search on Google in fact is: Did Aretha Franklin die without a will?  After her death, there are crucial lessons to learn from the Queen of Soul about how to R-E-S-P-E-C-T your legacy—and your heirs—with a well-thought-out, professionally prepared estate plan.

Four Sons, Two Wills, and One High-Stakes Court Drama

Aretha Franklin, one of the most influential and successful singers in American history, passed away at her Detroit, Michigan home in 2018 at the age of 76. Her passing marked the end of a storied musical career—and the beginning of a five-year court battle among her children over her last will and testament.

Initially, it appeared as though Franklin died intestate—that is, without a will—which would have left the court to decide how her personal property, real estate, music and copyrights, and other assets would be divided among her four sons. However, the surprise discovery of not one but two wills raised legal questions about how Franklin wanted her estate distributed.

One will from 2014 was found under couch cushions and written in a spiral notebook. The other, dated 2010, was in a locked cabinet. Both were handwritten, detailed lists of her accounts and property, and named who should inherit what, but neither was prepared by a lawyer or listed witnesses. Further complicating matters, the two wills contained significant differences in how the estate should be divided, leading to disagreements among Franklin’s sons over which version should control the estate.

Over the next five years, the sons faced off in court over these tangled legal questions. The case became combative, and a rift reportedly developed within the family. A jury finally resolved the saga by determining that the 2014 document found in the late singer’s couch represented her true final wishes.

Takeaways from Franklin’s Will Dispute

Estate planning is about cementing your legacy as you envision it and ensuring that your heirs face minimal burdens when they inherit your assets. Aretha Franklin’s legacy, from a musical standpoint, is unquestionable. However, her failure to organize her personal finances before her death led to a messy legal situation that could have been easily avoided with the following basic estate planning strategies:

  1. Let Loved Ones Know Where Documents Are Stored A will must be presented to the court and verified before it takes effect. If it cannot be found, it is effectively useless. Ensure that your loved ones know where your will and other estate planning documents like trusts, powers of attorney, and life insurance policies are stored. Keep them in a secure place, such as a bank safe deposit box, a fireproof safe, a filing cabinet, or an encrypted online cloud. Provide access codes to anyone who may need them. Document copies can be given to your estate planning attorney, the local probate court, a trusted friend or family member, or the executor as a fail-safe.
  2. Keep Just One Version of Estate Planning Documents Only one will is admissible to probate. Typically, the most recent version of a will or other estate planning document prevails in court over older versions. If you update your will or create new documents, destroy the older versions to prevent confusion.
  3. Avoid Handwritten Wills Unless you find yourself on your deathbed without a will, there is no good reason to use a handwritten will, known as a holographic will. Although holographic wills are considered legally valid in many states, some states do not allow them at all. In the states that do, they must meet specific criteria. For example, the material issues (what you have and to whom you want to leave your assets) must be in your own handwriting and signed and dated by you. Working with an attorney ensures that the document is legally prepared and executed.
  4. Do Not Send Mixed Messages Having more than one will is an estate planning blunder that is easily avoided. Additionally, make sure that your wishes are properly reflected in the beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts and in the way you have created jointly owned accounts and property.

Estate Planning Is a Lifelong Process: Get The Help You Deserve

An estate plan is not something you complete once and then leave in a cabinet (or under couch cushions). It needs to be revisited and updated throughout your life as circumstances change. The earlier you start estate planning, and the more vigilant you are about revising it, the better. Ignoring it or waiting until the last minute to make revisions could have unintended consequences that your heirs are left to deal with. To complete or review your estate plan, please reach out to schedule a meeting with our attorneys.

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