Does This Look Like a Will to You? A Jury Says It’s Aretha’s

It’s alarming how many people die without a Will. I’m particularly shocked how many people of high net worth put off estate planning. By failing to plan, they leave behind a mess for their family. Such is the case with the “Queen of Soul.” Aretha Franklin’s four sons have been battling over her estate since her death five years ago.

At issue is whether any of these were Franklin’s Will:
#1 – 2010 handwritten papers (signed on each page and notarized) found in a locked cabinet.
#2 – 2014 handwritten pages found in a spiral notebook under couch cushions, with multiple scrawlings, crossed-out words, and insertions.
#3 – A draft of a Will she was preparing with her estate lawyer, to which she referred in three voicemail messages months before she died.

If none qualifies as a legitimate Will, Michigan law would divide the estate equally among Franklin’s four sons.

The case went to trial last week. Jury verdict: the document behind “Door Number Two” wins—the 2014 scribbles which her niece discovered under the couch cushions (many months after Franklin’s death) is the official Will.

Now the work begins to decipher and interpret it. To get an idea of the task at hand, look at this excerpt:

The jury concluded that the smiley face paired with “Franklin” represents her signature. “The process of interpreting a deceased person’s intentions from the lines of a handwritten document can be a confusing, contentious process, one that made for a gripping story line in the HBO series ‘Succession.’ In the show’s final season, the family patriarch’s heirs struggled to decode penciled-in addendums to [patriarch Roy Logan’s] last wishes that were found locked in a safe.”1

The 2014 Will changes the outcome from what Michigan law would dictate if no Will were deemed legitimate. The 2014 Will excludes eldest son Clarence Franklin, suffering from a mental illness and under a legal guardianship (though a recent settlement provides him an undisclosed percentage of the estate.) Youngest son Kecalf Franklin is the big winner, receiving more of his mother’s personal assets, including two of her four houses and her cars. Furthermore, the 2014 document omitted a requirement from the 2010 version requiring that sons Kecalf and Edward “‘must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree’ to benefit from the estate.”2

Franklin’s third son Ted White II asserted that the 2010 document signed on each page, notarized, and kept under lock and key should take precedence over papers found in a couch. The jury disagreed. Unsurprisingly, Ted and Kecalf did not appear to speak to each other at the trial.

Consider the pain and disharmony that could have been avoided if only mom Aretha had left a clear expression of her wishes. Out of “R–E–S–P–E–C–T” for your heirs, please do thoughtful, legally-documented estate planning as a gift to your family.

Marvin E. Blum

1 Julia Jacobs, Is Aretha Franklin’s True Will the One Found in the Couch or a Cabinet?, N.Y. TIMES, Jul. 9, 2023.
2 Ed White, Jury Decides 2014 Document Found in Aretha Franklin’s Couch is a Valid Will, ASSOCIATED PRESS, Jul. 11, 2023.

Out of “R–E–S–P–E–C–T” for your family, learn from Aretha Franklin’s mistake and create a clear, legally-documented estate plan.