Aretha Franklin’s estate battle shows importance of having proper will

Aretha Franklin performs onstage in New York City, Nov. 7, 2017.

Dimitrios Kambouris | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

A jury determined which of Aretha Franklin’s two wills was valid

A will is a legal document that details your wishes for your property and assets upon death. In other words, it spells out who gets your stuff and in what amounts. Parents with minor children can also nominate a legal guardian for their kids.

You also name an executor in your will to ensure your wishes are followed.

If someone dies without a legal will, it means they die “intestate.” Each state has laws that determine how an estate’s property is divided in those circumstances.

Franklin didn’t have a formal, typewritten will. Instead, she jotted down her wishes on two handwritten wills — one dated in 2010 and another in 2014. Both were discovered in Franklin’s Detroit home months after the Queen of Soul’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2018.

Key steps you need to establish an estate plan

The 2014 will was found in a notebook under a couch cushion, and the 2010 document was found in a locked cabinet.

Franklin, who died at age 76, had four sons. The legal dispute over the estate was between her sons, who disagreed over which handwritten will should govern their mother’s estate.

One son, Ted White II, thought the 2010 will should control the estate, while two other sons, Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin, favored the 2014 document, according to the Associated Press.

There are differences between the documents. For instance, the 2014 version says Kecalf Franklin and grandchildren would get his mother’s main home in Bloomfield Hills, valued at $1.1 million when she died, according to the AP. However, the 2010 version splits the home evenly between White and Kecalf Franklin.

Both wills seem to indicate the sons would share income from music and copyrights.

Everybody should have either a will or a trust. [Otherwise] state law will dictate where your property goes.

Richard Behrendt

Estate planner

Certain states such as Michigan recognize handwritten wills — also known as holographic wills — as valid if they meet specific criteria, said Charlie Douglas, a certified financial planner and president of HH Legacy Investments in Atlanta.

Generally, the more recent will takes precedence over an older one, Douglas said.

“There are too many ways it could go wrong,” Behrendt said of drafting a do-it-yourself will. “This [proceeding] will be talked about in law schools in every state in the country.

“This is why you don’t want to do it on a note pad,” he added.

Even a proper will is superseded in some cases

A will is superseded in some cases, such as with beneficiary designations on retirement accounts, Douglas said.

That may also happen if a decedent owns property in “joint tenancy,” whereby two or more people own the property together, Douglas said. Let’s say a married couple owns an investment account in joint tenancy. This legal arrangement dictates that the surviving spouse inherits the account, taking precedence over the language in a will, Douglas said.

“You have to also look at how your assets are titled,” Douglas said. “Because the will may or may not control [them].”

When someone dies, the executor presents their will to the court as part of a “probate” proceeding. The will and its contents become a matter of public record, Behrendt said.

People who would like to keep the details of their estate plan private — especially celebrities and those with wealth — may prefer to use a trust instead, Behrendt said. Using a revocable trust is essentially the same as a will, but it allows you circumvent the courts, he said.

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