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5 Estate Planning Lessons From Aretha Franklin’s Will

A handwritten document found in the late singer’s couch is ruled valid

spinner image aretha franklin in two thousand eleven singing at a barack obama event
Paul Sancya/AP Newsroom

Singer Aretha Franklin taught her fans about respect, pride and gospel during her long career. Five years after her death, she’s giving us all a lesson about how to provide for our heirs — and how not to.

Franklin, who was known as the Queen of Soul and sang such hits as “Respect” and “Think,” died Aug. 16, 2018. She was thought to have passed away without a will, meaning that the bulk of her fortune in real estate, jewelry and music royalties would be split among her four sons by a judge. Her niece, Sabrina Owens, volunteered to be executor, the person tasked with divvying up an estate.

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While combing through Franklin’s home after her death, Owens discovered not one but two handwritten wills. A Michigan jury decided on July 11 that Franklin’s handwritten will from 2014, found in her couch, is valid and overrides a 2010 will discovered around the same time in a locked cabinet in her home.

It’s not unusual for people to die intestate — estate planning jargon for dying without a will — but it’s unusual for someone with substantial assets to do so. It’s also unusual for someone like Franklin, a wealthy celebrity with access to lawyers and a familiarity with legal contracts, to leave a holographic will, which is the legal term for such a handwritten document. Which leads us to the estate planning lessons that can be learned from the to-do over the Queen of Soul’s competing wills:

1. In many states, a handwritten will left in a couch can be as valid as one drawn up by lawyers and filed at a courthouse. According to LegalZoom, a handwritten will is valid in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. Franklin died in Michigan.

Most states require the will to be in the same handwriting and signed by the person making the will, known as the testator. They also require the testator to indicate that she is writing a will, rather than just making notes. In some states, the will must be signed. And when the will goes to probate — the legal process of administrating and distributing an estate — many states will require the testimony of witnesses who saw the will being written or who can identify the handwriting.

2. A will should be clear. “One of the best gifts you can leave your family is clarity,” says Joyce Streithorst, a certified financial planner (CFP) in Melville, New York. “Having a will that matches your wishes and correct beneficiary designations can save a lot of headaches and heartaches.”

Franklin’s 2010 will named her son Ted White II to be coexecutor along with Owens, her niece. The will required two other sons, Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin, to take business classes in order to benefit from the estate.

The 2014 will names Kecalf Franklin as the executor and makes no mention of business classes. In addition, Kecalf Franklin and the grandchildren would get Aretha Franklin’s main home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which was valued at $1.1 million when she died.

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3. The most recent version of a will usually prevails over an older one. This is why the Michigan jury ruled in favor of Kecalf Franklin. “Two inconsistent wills cannot both be admitted to probate. In such cases, the most recent will revokes the previous will,” Charles McKelvie, a lawyer for Kecalf Franklin, said in a court filing in favor of the 2014 document.

4. It doesn’t hurt to get professional advice. “I always recommend working with a reputable estate attorney to draft your legal documents,” says Catherine Vega, a CFP in Winchester, Massachusetts. “However, a handwritten will is better than nothing, and obviously holds up in court — so good for Aretha! Hopefully, she can rest peacefully knowing that her wishes will be upheld.”

5. The IRS is always first in line. Your heirs won’t get money until any IRS tax claims are satisfied. Franklin’s estate has paid $8.1 million to the IRS since the singer’s death.

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