The Memo: Aretha Franklin will dispute

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Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Only this time, there’s two wills…

Alice Gregory – 17 July 2023

If you’ve got your eye on being a private client lawyer, this is a case to watch, and certainly an unfortunate lesson to learn about getting your affairs in order. Aretha Franklin passed away in August 2018 without a finalised, formal will, which has ultimately led to five years of (expensive!) disputes between three out of four of her sons. A year after she passed, her niece found two handwritten wills in her home: a 2010 document in a locked cabinet, and a 2014 document in a spiral notebook stuffed in her couch.

Her sons Kecalf and Edward argued in favour of the 2014 will, while her other son Ted supported the 2010 version. Both documents asked her children to look after and financially support her eldest son, Clarence, who has special needs and is under legal guardianship. The newer will, found in the couch, grants Edward and Kecalf more money, while Ted would stand to receive a part of his mother’s music royalties. Kecalf and his children and grandchildren would also inherit Franklin’s cars and her home, which has increased its $1.1 million estimation at the time of her passing. Ted was given a greater portion of Franklin’s estate in the 2010 will, which also dictated that Kecalf and Edward must take business classes and earn a degree or certificate in order to receive their fair share.

Ted and his lawyers claimed that the 2010 will was signed and notarised so should be accepted as legally binding, while the 2014 was nothing more than a “draft.” He argued that his mother would have gone through things more sensibly with a lawyer, rather than leaving such a document in the couch. Kecalf and Edward, meanwhile, claimed that the most recent will should override any previous documents. It was also mentioned that Franklin spent lots of time on this couch! The court ultimately ruled that the 2014 will was valid, and it’s important to note that in the state of Michigan where she lived, the law does recognise such informal wills. As long as it is in your own handwriting, dated and signed, then it can be accepted as a legal document.

This isn’t the case in other states, and disputes over Prince’s estate only wrapped up recently after he passed without a will in 2016. His was divided between his surviving siblings according to Minnesota law, which caused plenty of arguments between them. It’s safe to say that writing a formal will is something that shouldn’t be delayed, especially with such a large estate. This also go some way to show that being an estate lawyer isn’t for the faint of heart, especially considering the fallout from such a sensitive matter.