Aretha Franklin’s Sons Clash in Court Over Handwritten Wills

Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” died five years ago, in 2018, at age 76 from pancreatic cancer. Through her six-decade career in the music business, she left behind a legacy that included over 75 million record sales, 17 Top 10 hits, and 112 charted Billboard singles! Sadly, after five years, Franklin’s legacy and $80 million dollar estate were tied up in a suburban Detroit court after a niece found different sets of handwritten papers at Franklin’s home.

Aretha Franklin’s assets included a home, as well as lucrative royalties and licensing assets. Despite years of health problems, however, and numerous drafts, she did not have a formal, typewritten will in place. Under Michigan law, though, it’s possible to treat handwritten documents like the ones found — with scribbles, scratch-outs and hard-to-read passages — as her wishes. But not without a lot of family strife, fighting, private information divulged to the public, and expensive court proceedings that could have been avoided had she had properly drafted estate planning documents by an experienced estate planning attorney in place.  

Four Wills Were Found in Aretha Franklin’s Home

According to the Detroit Free Press, by 2021, four different wills were discovered in searches of Franklin’s home, including three handwritten notes and a typewritten but unsigned document prepared by a law firm in 2017. Though all of the documents acknowledge that the estate should be divided between her four sons, details as to which of her children will ultimately control her legacy remain unclear. The case went to trial last month, and the dispute is pitting one son against the other sons.

Here are the details about two of the handwritten documents that are being disputed:

  • One document, dated 2010, names son Theodore White and niece Sabrina Owens as co-executors. It also contains the condition that two of her other sons, Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin, “must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” before they can collect their portion of their inheritance.
  • Another note, dated 2014, keeps Owens as executor, but has White’s name crossed out. Instead, Kecalf is named as co-executor, and it’s his family and grandchildren who are bequeathed with Franklin’s home. In that document, business classes for her beneficiaries are not mentioned, but a guarantee of support for her eldest son, Clarence, is. (According to an Orlando Sentinel report from 1991, Clarence, born when Franklin was just 12 years old, lives with schizophrenia. He currently lives under guardianship in an assisted living facility. He did not participate in the trial, but both papers indicated that he must be regularly supported.)

Here are some additional details about the situation: 

  • Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece, who has served as executor since Franklin’s death, resigned in 2020 to “calm the rift in my family,” she said. “In spite of my best efforts, my role with the estate has become more contentious with the heirs. Given my aunt’s deep love of family and desire for privacy, this is not what she would have wanted for us, nor is it what I want.”
  • Franklin’s son, Theodore White, who was named in the earlier documents, played guitar for her during her performances. He, of course, favors the 2010 documents. His attorney stated that the 2014 document is “merely a draft” and maintains that the 2010 note is signed and notarized. Noting the wild search of Franklin’s home to find the wills, he says that if the 2014 document, which was found beneath some pillows, “were intended to be a will, there would have been more care than putting it in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion.”  White said that his mother typically would get important documents done “conventionally and legally” and with assistance from an attorney. 
  • Kecalf Franklin, who was named in the later documents, said he doesn’t consider it unusual that important papers like a will would be discovered in the living room. Asked by his attorney where Aretha Franklin often read mail, made important phone calls, signed documents, and even slept, Kecalf Franklin repeatedly said, “on the couch.”

Jury Decides 2014 Document Found in Aretha Franklin’s Couch Is a Valid Will

“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, argued in court.

The two sides met in court last month to decide whether that should be the outcome. The case was presided over by Oakland County probate judge Jennifer Callaghan, who’s overseen the estate dispute since Franklin’s passing. A jury was tasked with deciding which of the documents should be honored.

In closing arguments, Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin’s attorney said the fact that the 2014 papers were found in a notebook in couch cushions did not make them less significant. The jury deliberated less than an hour after a brief trial. It was a victory for Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin, whose lawyers had argued that papers dated 2014 should override a 2010 will that was discovered around the same time in Franklin’s home.

There still will be discussions over whether some provisions of the 2010 will should be fulfilled and whether Kecalf Franklin could become executor of the estate. 

How the Long, Expensive Situation and Family Strife with Aretha Franklin’s Estate Could Have Been Avoided

Simple steps can prevent a costly, highly publicized nightmare like the one that Aretha Franklin’s family experienced. These are some of the lessons you can learn from the situation:

  • Don’t DIY. Get your estate planning and incapacity planning in order with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney. Many, if not most, people who use DIY documents/forms do it wrong. Whether you’ve downloaded the forms for free or it cost a few dollars, the price you ultimately pay for DIY documents may result in a bigger financial payout in the future, and lots of headaches for your loved ones. Think of it this way: If I have a toothache, I can use the pliers in my toolbox to extract my own tooth instead of having an oral surgeon perform the procedure. Of course, just because I can do it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Please read my article on the subject for more details on why you should seek professional help from experienced estate planning attorneys for your estate planning needs
  • More than a will is needed to avoid probate. Remember that dying with or without a Last Will and Testament means that the probate court will oversee distribution of your property. Better estate planning involves using a living trust to distribute your assets upon your death and having a trusted family member or a professional trustee that you pick distribute your assets.

A revocable living trust to avoid after-death probate, along with a financial power of attorney and an advance medical directive to avoid lifetime probate, will give you much-needed peace of mind and save your family a tremendous amount of stress, time, and money should something happen to you. A living trust allows for the distribution of assets after death according to your wishes and without court involvement. A general power of attorney names someone you trust to make financial decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated, thus avoiding the need for a conservatorship (called guardianship of the property in Maryland and some other states), which is the court-supervised process of living probate. An advance medical directive names someone you trust to make medical decisions for you if you’re not able to, thus avoiding the court-supervised guardianship process that’s also part of lifetime probate.

  • Anticipate family dynamics. Even the closest of families can become dysfunctional when a loved one dies. It’s sad to think that your death could create a permanent divide between your relatives. At least, things can be made simpler by creating a clear plan that leaves nothing to chance. Just because you’ve told a close relative that you want them to have your Lladro collection, don’t assume that everyone knows this or will be happy about it. A letter that clearly explains the reasons for your decisions, as part of your estate planning, can help prevent hurt feelings and possible legal challenges.
  • Name a trustworthy trustee/executor. Designate a trusted individual to carry out your trust’s instructions and manage the affairs and wishes of your estate. Your designee should understand what he or she will be required to do. If you sense any hesitation or concern, talk through those concerns. If it still doesn’t feel right to one or both of you, identify another person to serve in this important capacity, someone who will truly have your heirs’ best interests at heart. And if you are naming an individual, it is always wise to name one or more alternate individuals in case the primary individual you have named is not available or willing to serve in that role when the time comes.

No one knows when tragedy may strike, so don’t wait to get your estate planning and incapacity planning documents in order!

Estate Planning: Get Your Affairs in Order to Make Things Easier for Loved Ones

As you can see from the situation described, if you die without proper estate planning, it could create unnecessary headaches for those left behind and needlessly waste a significant portion of your assets on taxes, attorney’s fees, and probate expenses. This is why it is important to have an experienced estate planning attorney, such as those here at the Farr Law Firm, to create your estate plan and be sure to keep everything up-to-date.

Once completed, it is wise to review your estate plan at least every three to five years and make necessary updates accordingly, or to join our Lifetime Protection Plan® to ensure that your documents are up-to-date each year or whenever needed. Read more about our four levels of lifetime protection planning here.

We here at the Farr Law Firm have numerous strategies in place to help our clients plan for themselves and their loved ones. If you have not done your estate planning, incapacity planning, or retirement planning or had your planning documents reviewed this year, please call us to make an appointment: 

Northern Virginia Estate Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg, VA Estate Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville, MD Estate Planning: 301-519-8041
Annapolis, MD Estate Planning: 410-216-0703
Washington, 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.