The Music Icon’s Last Wishes: Aretha Franklin’s Handwritten Wills
Music icon Aretha Franklin died of pancreatic cancer in 2018 at the age of 76. She had drafted two separate, hand-written wills prior to her death and litigation among three of her four sons ensued following her death to determine which will governed. Hand-written wills are sometimes called “holographic” wills and are legally permissible in both New York, and in Michigan, where the case was tried and where Ms. Franklin lived. Her son, Ted, favored a will written by Ms. Franklin in 2010 and her sons Kecalf and Edward favored a separate 2014 will. The contest over the wills went to a jury to decide which document was the artist’s true last will and testament, and to settle the estimated $6 million dollar estate.
The 2010 document was found in a locked cabinet and appeared to be notarized. This will named Ted and Ms. Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens, as the executor of her estate. The 2010 version indicated that sons Ted and Kecalf would be joint owners of Ms. Franklin’s $1.1 million dollar home and provided monthly allowances to each of the singer’s four sons. Importantly, however, this document stated that Edward and Kecalf could not receive anything from the will until they take “business administration classes or get a certificate or degree.” Once this requirement was satisfied, the estate was to be divided “equally to my children” and included jewelry, furs, fine furnishings, music, art, [and] copyright.”
Ted had assisted Ms. Franklin with her various legal matters over the years and asserted at trial that this document is consistent with Ms. Franklin’s approach to legal matters because it was found along with other music contracts. The jury didn’t get to see this will, but if they had they would have found it to be quite similar to the 2014 document, with crossed-out portions and messy handwriting.
The second will, written in 2014, had been stored in a notebook under a couch cushion. In contrast, this document appointed Kecalf and Edward as the executors of the will. The jury was able to see this document, all four pages of it, and the notes made in the document’s margins. It even had words crossed-out and was otherwise written in less-than-clear penmanship.
The will was reportedly a sight to see. For example, the document named “Teddy” as executor, but that word was then crossed out and replaced with “Kecalf and Edward”. The 2014 document calls for the sons to “split evenly” the money in her bank accounts, copyrights, songs, awards and interests in her biopic. It also gifts her primary residence, valued around $1.1 million to Kecalf and his children, and other houses owned by Ms. Franklin to Ted and Edward.
This will was the more recent of the two, and Kecalf testified that Ms. Franklin spent much of her time on the couch in her later years. He wasn’t surprised that an official document was stored there, and it didn’t strike him as out-of-character that Ms. Franklin had decided to hand-write her own will. Kecalf asserted that the impact of the 2010 will would be a disinheritance of him and his brother Edward, and that couldn’t have possibly represented Ms. Franklin’s wishes, particularly in light of the 2014 document.
There are reports that the value of the estate was significantly depleted by the payment of back taxes and the litigation over the wills itself. Exact figures vary widely, but all reports suggest that this litigation was not cheap.
After nearly five years of litigation, a two-day trial and less than an hour of deliberation, a six-person jury agreed with Kecalf and Edward and found the 2014 document was Ms. Franklin’s will. The estate will be divided evenly among the sons, and the issue of which document is Ms. Franklin’s actual will is now settled. The jury appears to have not been bothered by the seemingly unofficial look of the 2014 will, and instead focused on the dates of the documents and read Ms. Franklin as intending the most recent document to be her actual will.
Protecting Your Legacy: Important Considerations for Estate Planning
Generally speaking, more recent wills do take precedence over older ones. However, there are specific things that you can do to be sure that your family is not confused about which will contains your last wishes.
First, it’s critical that your new will includes specific language revoking all prior wills. A lawyer who is well-versed in estate and trusts issues can help you include the “magic words” in your will to be sure this has happened. In addition, it’s critical that you dispose of your entire estate – in other words, don’t leave things up to chance or just assume someone else will figure it all out; rather, be specific about items of property and where you want them to go. A court is more likely to find that your prior will was revoked if your current will is thorough and addresses all the assets in your estate.
Second, it’s important to not waffle back and forth between your wills. If you tell one person that your first will contains your actual wishes, and then you tell a second person that a later will contains your wishes, it is likely to create confusion, hurt feelings, and leave a court unable to determine your actual last wishes.
Finally, and these tips might seem simple but are often overlooked, consider the following:
- If you have an old will and you’ve adopted a new will, shred the old will. Destroy it.
- Do not make markings on your will, like crossing out names or filling in new assets, without consulting an attorney. You might be saving a few hundred dollars today, but it may end up costing your family thousands of dollars in the future if your changes invalidate the will or inadvertently create confusion.
- Consider having a family meeting and discussing the terms of your will with your family while you are still in good health. Some families jokingly call these “Mom or Dad is going to die this year” meetings; but joking aside, clear and regular communication is an affordable and effective way to avoid future problems in this area.
Ms. Franklin’s estate litigation is a cautionary tale about the importance of having a properly executed will and communicating your wishes clearly and consistently. On balance, this story ended positively, as the parties came together after the jury verdict to support one another. Not all families are so lucky. Getting out ahead of these issues will help to smooth the road during a difficult time for your family.
If you are facing similar concerns or if you have questions about your Trust & Estate Litigation situation, please feel free to contact us here. We have many years of experience handling such matters and will be able to assist you in resolving the dispute.
To learn more about these topics, you may want to review our information provided on these pages: Trusts & Estate Litigation.
 Ms. Franklin’s first son, Clarence, is a person with special needs who did not participate in the litigation. Both wills provided that he receive money on a weekly basis to provide for all of his needs, and his three brothers reached an agreement before trial to provide an undisclosed percentage of the Estate to him.