Beyond The Will, Client Compass

Battle of the Wills: The Legal Battle of Aretha Franklin’s Estate

July 11, 2023


You may have heard of the Battle of the Bands, but have you ever heard of the Battle of the Wills? Aretha Franklin died in 2018, but the legal battle over her estate continues today in the Michigan Probate Courts.

When Franklin died, it was presumed that she died intestate, without a will. When someone dies intestate, their assets pass according to the laws of intestacy, which vary from state to state. Assets will mostly pass to the surviving spouse, if any, and the decedent’s children, if any. If the decedent did not leave a surviving spouse or children, the assets would pass to more remote family members.

In Franklin’s estate, her niece, Sabrina Owens, was appointed Personal Representative. A Personal Representative is a person named in someone’s will, or appointed by the court, to administer the decedent’s estate. This involves paying debts and taxes and distributing assets to named beneficiaries or family members. Eight months after Franklin’s death, Owens found many handwritten documents in Franklin’s home, two of which appear to be handwritten wills – and the terms of the two wills contradict each other.

This situation begs many questions. Are handwritten wills valid? What happens when two wills contradict each other? Who has the authority to cast the verdict over the battle of the wills? This article will dive into the answers to those questions.

Are Handwritten Wills Valid?

Generally, wills must be executed according to each state’s specific laws. These laws often require a will to be signed, dated, and witnessed by two disinterested parties. Some states also require notarization. However, some states allow basic handwritten wills as long as they follow specific execution laws.

There is also a specific subset of handwritten wills called holographic wills. A holographic will is entirely handwritten and is not signed by witnesses or a notary. Twenty-six states accept holographic wills, and luckily for Franklin’s beneficiaries, Michigan is one of them. Other states, like Massachusetts, do not accept holographic wills or any type of handwritten wills.

Which Will Prevails?

When a decedent leaves conflicting wills, various factors are considered in determining which will prevails. First, courts will examine the wills themselves, including the date of each will (in some states, the newer will prevails) and the language included in the document. Second, the courts will examine outside factors, like witness testimony, to determine the decedent’s capacity to execute a will.

It is not uncommon for people to execute multiple wills during their lifetime. Assets and family dynamics often change, which prompt people to change their estate plan. However, when an attorney prepares a new will for a client, they often include language revoking all prior wills. Why? To avoid this exact problem plaguing the Franklin estate.

One of Franklin’s wills, dated 2014, was found under a couch cushion; the other, dated 2010, was found in a locked cabinet. The 2010 will names Sabrina Owens and Franklin’s son, Theodore White, co-Personal Representatives. The 2010 will also dictates that two of her other sons, Kecalf Franklin, and Edward Franklin, take business classes and obtain a degree before receiving their inheritance. This will was notarized and signed.

The 2014 will continues to name Owens as Personal Representative but adds Kecalf Franklin as a co-Personal Representative. This will was not notarized.

Both wills require financial support for her son, Clarence Franklin, who has special needs. Clarence is currently under guardianship and is not participating in the trial with his three brothers.

In this case, the family can’t determine which will prevails because the two wills are so different, and both are handwritten. Needless to say, Kecalf and Edward are advocating for the validity of the 2014 will, but Theodore is advocating for the validity of the 2010 will – but who will decide?

Who Will Decide?

Initially, the family attempted to mediate a solution during the estate administration. Unfortunately, they could not agree, which led to the current trial. During estate administration, the judges at the Probate Court in the county where the decedent lived have jurisdiction. However, with issues of fact, like in this case, it is up to a jury to decide the validity of the wills. On Monday, July 10th, 2023, the judge narrowed the issues for the jury and posed one question – is the 2014 will a valid will?

Only time will tell how Franklin’s property will be distributed among her four sons. However, this situation is a powerful lesson on the importance of only having one will as part of your estate plan.

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