Could Aretha’s Handwritten Wills Be Valid?

6.10.19Despite early reports that she had no will, it seems the Queen of Soul spent a fair amount of time creating three wills to provide for her four sons and leaving behind some strong opinions of the people in her circles. She just didn’t share those wills with her attorney.

When Aretha Franklin died of pancreatic cancer last August, it seemed that she had joined the ranks of  many celebrities who never created their wills or thought much about what they wanted their legacy to be.

The Detroit News’s recent article, “Handwritten wills found in Aretha Franklin home favor her four sons” reports that three handwritten wills have been discovered in one of her homes.

These documents suggest that Aretha had been considering what she wanted to leave to her heirs, if indeed the wills are found to have been written in her hand. Two of the wills discovered in a locked cabinet were dated 2010, eight years prior to her death.

Legal documents were filed by attorneys David J. Bennett and Kevin M. Check, who were hired by the personal representative of the estate, Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Garrett Owens. Bennett has been Franklin's lawyer for more than 40 years.

According to the documents, Owens discovered a key to a locked cabinet that she previously couldn’t open. She found two holographic wills that were dated June 21, 2010 and October 20, 2010. Owens also found a spiral notebook with another purported holographic will dated March 31, 2014, under the cushions of a living room couch.

The court filing says that the heirs and their counsel “have been unable to reach a resolution with each other over the admission, validity and dispositive provisions of the purported Holographic Wills.”

Unlike traditional wills, the signing of holographic wills aren’t witnessed and are probated in several states, providing they’re authenticated by other means, such as by verifying the handwriting and the intended wishes they contain. Michigan recognizes holographic wills.

Owens has asked for direction from County Probate Judge Jennifer S. Callaghan on how to continue as personal representative in the matter. A hearing is scheduled for this summer.

“She remains neutral and wishes that all parties involved make wise choices on behalf of their mother, her rich legacy, the family and the Aretha Franklin estate,” a statement said of Garrett Owens, according to the Associated Press.

The new wills certainly add confusion to the probating of Franklin’s estate. The handwritten wills are hard to read and may be a bit embarrassing. If they were personally written by Franklin, some sections contain comments about relatives, attorneys, and even a “Ha, Ha, Ha” and “BS” when describing someone. In an another aside, she said that one attorney had been “grossly inefficient.”

Each document starts with “being in sound mind and physical health” pronouncement—one noted “with the exception of high blood pressure, a mass on the pancreas, diabetes …”

A common theme of these wills is that Aretha clearly wanted to care for her sons: she wanted her automobiles and property to be supervised by one son; and all of her artwork, copyrights, and future royalties from her music to be shared equally by all her boys. She also wanted them to have her personal papers, awards and gold records.

One statement said that she wanted two of her sons to “take business administration classes and get a certificate or degree.” She specifically directed that her grandchildren are also to be gifted.

Her total net worth combining real estate property, royalties, jewelry and other assets are estimated at roughly $80 million. The only dollar figure discussed in the wills is a bank account worth $1.6 million.

The IRS says she owes more than $6.3 million in back taxes, but her attorney reports that she had paid all her debts before passing.

The big question is whether or not her handwritten wills will be accepted by the court as valid. Michigan law allows for any plan of estate distribution that is agreed to among the heirs, and on occasions, the handwritten notes of the deceased are followed, even if it is not legally required.

For celebrities and regular people, it’s still best to have an estate plan, prepared properly and in advance, to avoid estate battles and family fights.

Reference: The Detroit News (May 20, 2019) “Handwritten wills found in Aretha Franklin home favor her four sons”

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