Aretha Franklin was a diva. She demanded an upfront payment in cash before she would perform. She would walk off the stage if she thought the room she was singing in felt air-conditioned. And as we previously blogged, her funeral lasted several hours and included multiple changes of clothes and 100 pink Cadillacs.
She lived a life that really was larger than life. So, is it any surprise that her estate is also full of drama?
The Will In The Couch
When she died, her family and various attorneys said she had never written a will or done any sort of estate planning. Everyone assumed her estate would pass to her four sons through the laws of intestacy.
It was a huge surprise when several months later not one but three handwritten documents expressing her end of life wishes were discovered — two in a locked cabinet and one in a notebook under the sofa cushions of Franklin’s suburban Detroit home.
According to a reporter who has seen the documents, “The scrawled papers, which are dated between 2010 and 2014, are at times barely legible, with cross-outs, marginal notes, and some salty tangents. Yet the documents, which the Franklin estate said it considers to be three separate wills, also layout her intentions about distributing her assets after her death, including music royalties, real estate, jewelry, and even a piano and stereo equipment.”
A court will now have to decide if these documents do indeed constitute a will. If they do, Franklin’s estate administrator or executor must attempt to follow her directions as closely as possible.
Are These Documents A Will?
The Franklin estate is being probated in Michigan, and Michigan law will apply, so it will be interesting to see what happens there.
If the estate were being probated in Mississippi, it is not clear these documents would be considered a valid will. Our laws require the author to be at least 18 years old, be of sound mind, intend the document to be a will, and be validly executed.
Franklin was obviously over the age of 18 by 2010, and there was no public indication that she was no longer of sound mind. It does seem like she intended the documents to serve as a will based on the descriptions of them we have seen, but it is unclear they were validly executed.
In order to be valid, a handwritten will must be written entirely by the person making it. It does not require a witness if it is obviously all written in the creator’s hand.
Franklin’s youngest son is asking the courts in Michigan to allow a handwriting expert to examine the documents and determine if they were all written by Franklin. Whatever the expert determines, what happens next is a bit of a mystery.
It’s a huge estate that continues to grow, it owes a lot of taxes to the IRS, and the four sons are treated differently under the written documents than they would be under the laws of intestacy.
All in all, it’s a good reminder of the importance of working with an experienced estate planning attorney when you are ready to put your end of life plans down on paper.