Preserving & Protecting Your Family’s Assets & Legacy

Lessons learned from the battle over Aretha Franklin’s estate

by | Jul 18, 2023 | Estate Administration |

Nearly five years after Aretha Franklin’s death, it seems that the battle over her estate may finally be over. While few people have her wealth, all too many people make similar mistakes. She failed to properly execute an estate plan resulting in years of litigation. No one wants to think about death, nor do we want to consider what our loved ones will have to deal with if we die without a will. As a result, we do nothing, or we do the wrong thing.

What Were the Problems with Aretha Franklin’s Estate?

After Aretha’s death, two handwritten documents were found in her house in which she detailed how she wanted to distribute her assets after her death. The 2010 document was in a locked cabinet. She signed each page, but it was not witnessed. The 2014 document was discovered under a couch cushion. It was less detailed and there was debate as to whether it was properly signed by her. Neither was prepared by a lawyer nor witnessed. They listed her assets but also had extraneous comments and illegible language. Two of her sons claimed the 2014 document was a valid will that superseded the 2010 document. One son claimed that only the 2010 document constituted a valid will. The case went to trial.

On July 11, 2023, the jury found that the 2014 document was a valid will under Michigan law. However, it’s important to note that the result would be different in New York.

When Is a Will Valid Under New York Law?

Generally, New York law requires that a will must be signed by the testator at the end of the document and in the presence of at least two attesting witnesses who are not interested in the estate. The witnesses must attest to the will by signing in the presence of the testator. The testator must also be of sound mind. There are a few other formalities that must also be followed.

There is an exception for holographic wills. A holographic will is one that is entirely handwritten and not witnessed or executed in accordance with the above requirements. It is the type of will that Aretha Franklin had. However, New York does not recognize holographic wills as valid unless the testator is in actual military or naval service during a war or armed conflict, a mariner while at sea, or a person who serves with or accompanies an armed force engaged in actual military or naval service during a war or armed conflict.

Since none of these exceptions would apply to Aretha Franklin, neither of her wills would be valid in New York.

How Can You Avoid Problems with Your Estate?

The most important thing for every adult to do is to go to an attorney to have a valid will drafted and executed. This step will help you avoid the most common reasons for litigation and/or delays over an estate. A will allows you to clearly state your wishes and enables your heirs to get your will probated. Consulting an attorney also provides an opportunity for you to discuss possible problems with your estate. A lawyer can help you minimize taxes; protect assets for family members; choose appropriate executors, guardians, trustees, and other representatives; and engage in long-term care planning, among other things.

Don’t make the mistake of Aretha Franklin and leave your heirs to deal with a mess that may cause irreparable damage to their relationship as well as hurt the value of your assets. Contact us for a free consultation about your estate.


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