The “Queen of Soul” and Other Celebrities Who Died Without a Will

Aretha Franklin, “the Queen of Soul” died on August 16, at the age of 76, from pancreatic cancer. Similar to many other celebrities as we will describe in more detail in this article, a recent court filing revealed that Franklin didn’t have a will (i.e., that she died intestate).

Franklin reportedly had amassed a fortune of tens of millions of dollars. While the extent of her life’s work is tremendous, one song more than any other epitomizes her cultural impact: “Respect,” her smash hit from 1967. Franklin’s lawyer, Don Wilson, has represented her in entertainment matters for nearly three decades. He said he constantly asked her to do a will or trust, but she never got around to it. According to Wilson, “I was after her for a number of years to do a trust. It would have expedited things and kept them out of probate and kept things private.”

Wilson said that while he doesn’t have an exact dollar figure on the value of her assets, the lack of a Will means the finances will become public in Oakland County Probate Court. Franklin is not alone among the list of celebrities who died without a will. In the past, we have covered some of these celebrity oversights on our blog. Here’s a recap of a few of the ones we discussed and other cases:

Prince: Legendary singer Prince died at age 57 in April 2016. The court filings assess his estate to be worth at least $200 million, due to his musical legacy and unreleased recordings. Absence of a will has produced many claimants, including individuals purporting to be his earlier unknown wife, sibling, child and distant relative. A Minnesota probate judge declared Prince’s six siblings as the heirs to his holdings in 2017. However, following appeals filed by some would-be heirs, the distribution of assets has been stalled.

Sonny Bono: The accidental death of the entertainer-turned-congressman in 1998 forced his wife, Mary Bono, to go through probate court to get access her husband’s estate. Absence of a will also saw a love child appearing, though the claim was later withdrawn. Finally, Bono’s estate was distributed between Mary Bono and his two children, Chaz Bono and Christy Bono Fasce.

Kurt Cobain: Kurt Cobain died in 1994 and left behind a fortune recently estimated to be worth more than $450 million. Rosemary Carroll, his entertainment lawyer, stated that Kurt Cobain’s will was incomplete and Kurt had wished his wife Courtney Love taken out of it. This argument led to many legal battles between Love and Cobain’s Nirvana band partners, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. In 2010, Courtney Love relinquished the rights to Cobain’s name and likeness for a loan, and the couple’s daughter, Frances Bean, who then turned 18, gained charge of the trust fund, which was around a third of the estate.

Bob Marley: The Jamaican singer-songwriter who went on to become an international musical and cultural icon died of cancer in 1981, without a will. His assets were to be distributed among his wife and 11 children as per local laws. However, their entitlement to his name and likeness could be established only after years of court battle. Marley’s half-brother was sued by the estate for organizing tours and music festivals in his name, though the matter was later settled out of court.

Jimi Hendrix: The popular singer-musician passed away in 1970, and the feud over control of his estate went on for more than 30 years among his siblings. Jimi’s father Al Hendrix died in 2002 and left Jimi’s sister Janie in charge of the musician’s $80 million estate. The Washington State Supreme Court retained Janie’s right over the estate, but the battle continued among the warring siblings over use of singer’s image. A settlement was finally worked out before a scheduled July 2015 jury trial.

Dying Without a Will is Not Uncommon, Unfortunately

Unfortunately, it’s estimated that 60% to 2/3 of adults in America don’t have a Last Will and Testament, so the celebrities described above are not alone. And, although having a Will is better than having nothing in place, it’s certainly not enough. If you have only a Will, your estate will still pass through the painful and expensive “nightmare of probate.” Probate court is fully public, ridiculously expensive, absurdly time-consuming, and leaves loved ones more prone to fighting.

In addition to using a living trust to avoid after-death probate, it is also extremely important to avoid lifetime probate by signing a general power of attorney and advance medical directive. These incapacity planning documents dictate your wishes if you become incapacitated due to illness or injury, thereby avoiding the need for someone to have you declared incompetent by the probate court and become your lifetime guardian and conservator. If you become incompetent without these incapacity planning documents in place, your conservator has to file annual accountings with the court that are, in many states (including Virginia), exactly the same as the after-death accountings required under a last will and testament.

When you do complete your estate planning and incapacity planning documents, remember that a good rule of thumb is that whenever you have a major life change, make sure your planning documents are updated appropriately.

Estate Planning and Incapacity Planning is Important for Everyone

We here at the Farr Law Firm have strategies in place to help all types of people plan for themselves and their loved ones (whether or not you are rich and famous . . . and most of our clients are not). With proper advance planning, each person can retain the assets it has taken a lifetime to accumulate and the peace of mind that their child(ren)’s needs will be adequately and properly addressed. If you or members of your family have not done incapacity planning or estate planning, or if a loved one is beginning to need more care than you can handle, please contact us as soon as possible to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Estate Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Estate Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville Estate Planning: 301-519-8041
DC Estate Planning: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.