Is a handwritten document found under a couch cushion a will? According to the jurors in Aretha Franklin’s probate case, the answer is yes. Even though there was another, older document locked away with other important papers, the document found in the couch will dictate how the Queen of Soul’s $80 million estate is divided up.
The Palmer & Slay team has been keeping an eye on this case because it highlights many of the questions our estate planning clients in the Brandon, Mississippi area ask us all the time:
- What is a will?
- What happens to your old will if you make a new one?
- Is it difficult to challenge a will?
What is a will?
A will is an estate planning document that allows you to choose who will receive your assets after you pass away. Your will should also specify who will manage your estate after you pass away. If you have children under the age of 18, your will is also where you will name a guardian for them.
Under Mississippi law (Miss. Code Ann. § 91-5-1), a will is not valid unless the person who creates it is at least 18 years old, and is of sound and disposing mind. The document can be:
- Handwritten and signed by its owner (like the will found in Aretha Franklin’s couch),
- Signed by someone else at the owner’s direction, or
- Typed up and witnessed by two people other than the owner so long as the two witnesses do not benefit from the will in any way.
Under limited circumstances a will can also be verbal (Miss. Code Ann. § 91-5-15). The legal term for this is nuncupative. Mississippi is one of just a handful of states where this is true. If two witnesses can swear they heard you speak your piece shortly before you died, the courts can rule that verbal statement was you will.
When Palmer & Slay drafts estate planning documents for our clients, we handle the signing and witnessing in our office so they are good to go as soon as the owner walks out our door.
What happens to your old will if you make a new one?
One of the things that is interesting about Aretha Franklin’s estate plan is that she executed multiple wills near the end of her life. As mentioned above, her family found a document stuffed into the couch as well as an older will locked in a drawer with some other important paperwork.
Now that a jury has ruled the couch document is a valid will, the judge must determine if the couch will revokes the older will (which the whole family agrees is a will) in whole or only in part. This is important because the wills appoint different personal representatives for the estate, and the older document says her sons, Kecalf and Edward, “must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” in order to inherit from her estate.
Aretha could have cleared up any misunderstandings, and prevented her family from duking it out in court by telling them she drafted a new will and getting rid of her old one. Destroying old documents is an important part of the process of updating your estate plan, and it is something the Palmer & Slay team is happy to help you with.
Is it difficult to change a will?
Updating your estate plan every few years is important if your end of life wishes have changed, you have gained or lost loved ones mentioned in your plan, you have bought or sold property, or you want to ensure you are taking full advantage of the latest tax laws. Palmer & Slay regularly reviews estate plans people in the Brandon, Mississippi area bring to us — whether we originally drafted them or not.
If changes are needed it may be necessary to execute entirely new documents, or it may be possible to make small modifications using a codicil.
It is unclear why Aretha Franklin chose to draft a second will, and that is okay. Making changes to your estate plan is your prerogative. The problem with Franklin’s will is not that she made changes, but as discussed above, she didn’t destroy the older will she had on file.
Preserving Your Wealth. Protecting Your Loved Ones
If you need to create or update your estate plan, the Palmer & Slay team is here for you. Our experienced attorneys can help you draft a will and other documents that will ensure your end-of-life wishes are R-E-S-P-E-C-T-ed. Please contact us today to schedule a meeting.