The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, left behind a legacy of iconic songs when she died in 2018. Unfortunately, she also left behind a confusing and contentious estate plan that kept her family wrapped up in a five-year legal dispute. The family’s sad situation offers a cautionary tale about the importance of estate planning as well as lessons learned — specifically about the legalities of handwritten Wills and updates to Wills.
It was originally thought that the 76-year-old singer, known for hits such as “Respect” and “Chain of Fools,” died without a Will. Under Michigan law, her assets, believed to be worth about $18 million, would be divided equally among her four sons. However, nearly a year after her death, two handwritten Wills were found in her home: one in a locked cabinet and the other in a spiral notebook that was discovered tucked in a couch cushion.
Neither was prepared by a lawyer or included witnesses, though the first one was notarized. There was some debate about the validity of the signatures and whether either or both Wills were valid under Michigan’s laws regarding “holographic,” or handwritten, Wills. Franklin’s “intent” was a major focus of the court case, as the two Wills divided her assets differently.
In July 2023, a probate court jury decided that the couch cushion Will, dated later than the first, would serve as the valid Will. By then, this combative court case caused a rift in her family that resulted in her children airing their grievances about each other publicly.
State laws are nearly equally divided on whether a handwritten Will can be valid. New Jersey, like Michigan, permits handwritten Wills or updates on Wills to be admitted as holographic Wills or codicils if they meet certain requirements. However, in New Jersey, any handwritten Wills or notes must be approved by the Probate Court, which will also decide how the Will’s provisions should be interpreted. This process can cause additional delay and expenses — especially when compared to the costs of hiring an experienced attorney to properly draft or update a Will in the first place.
Lessons Learned from Franklin’s Failure to Estate Plan
While it may be tempting to take pen to paper and list your wishes for how you want your assets handled after your death, know that doing so without proper estate planning may leave your family with questions and disagreements that can be costly and disruptive. Here are some lessons Franklin’s situation teaches us about estate planning:
- Be Clear: One of the primary issues with Franklin’s Wills was the lack of clarity. The documents contained crossed-out sections, notes in the margins and unclear directives. This ambiguity led to disputes among family members about her true intentions.
- Update Formally: While updating a Will is essential as life circumstances change, it’s crucial to do so with formality. Handwritten changes or notes can lead to confusion. It’s best to create a new document that clearly revokes previous versions of the Will and ensure it’s executed with all the required formalities.
- Store Safely: The discovery of multiple Wills in various locations in Franklin’s home added to the confusion. Store your will in a safe, known location, and inform a trusted individual of its whereabouts.
- Seek Legal Counsel: Holographic Wills, while convenient, can lead to complications, as seen in Franklin’s case. It’s always advisable to work with an attorney when drafting or updating a Will to ensure it meets all legal requirements and clearly reflects your wishes.