Aretha Franklin was known asThe Queen of Soul. She had an immeasurable
impact on American society and perhaps an equally immeasurable impact
around theWorld. Some of her songs, including Respect, A NaturalWoman,
I Say a Little Prayer, are iconic andmanymore are in the Library of Congress.
Ms. Franklin died 5 years ago, at age 76, from Pancreatic Cancer. She is
survived by four adult children, all sons. After her passing, no Will was
found and by Michigan law, her Estate was to be divided equally among
her four sons. The sons all agreed to appoint one of Ms. Franklin’s Nieces,
Sabrina Owens, as the Administrator.
Ms. Owens, months after Ms. Franklin died, searched her Aunt’s home, in
West Bloomfield, Michigan, as any Administrator or Executor would. She
found two Testamentary documents. Both are handwritten (known, legally,
One was found in a locked cabinet. It was apparently made in 2010 and was
notarized. A second one was found in a notebook in a Couch (it is not clear
whether it was a sofa or Hide-a-bed but one can speculate!). This one was
made in 2014. It was signed by Ms. Franklin.
An Attorney had urged Ms. Franklin to prepare aWill or a Trust. She never
did and it is not clear why.
Suddenly, the four sons were divided.
Various news sources, including the New York Times, wrote about the
Hearing, conducted earlier this month, in which the Wills were placed
before a Jury for determination which is valid.
Aside from some notes which apparently were dismissive of some of the
men in Ms. Franklin’s life, theWills contained detailed lists of assets.
The 2010 handwritten Will described weekly and monthly allowances to
the sons.There is a clause that requires two of the sons (named Kecalf and
Edward) to enroll in business classes and gain a certificate or degree in order
to collect anything from the Estate.
That Will is 12 pages in length and is more detailed. Ms. Franklin signed
The 2014 Will gave equal shares of Ms. Franklin’s music royalties to three
of her sons (one of the sons is disabled and lives in a care facility. He was
excluded from that particular Asset of the Estate, which may be the most
valuable asset, in the long term).
One of the sons, Kecalf, was bequeathed Ms. Franklin’s primary residence
and her cars (which included a Mercedes, 2 Cadillacs and a Thunderbird
It is not clear whether the 2014Will was properly signed. Apparently, one of
the pages was not initialed. Instead, a smiley face was drawn.
Probate process and the Hearing
Ms. Owens resigned from her position because of the tension within the
family. Two sons, Kecalf and Edward, argued that the 2014 Will should
govern because it is more recent and is an accurate expression of their
Mother’s Wishes. Another son, Ted White, Jr., who played guitar in Ms.
Franklin’s band, argued for the earlier Will, partly because it was properly
done, signed and in greater detail.
The fourth son, Clarence, did not participate in the hearing but his 3 siblings
agreed that he would be supported from the Estate.
The Hearing proceeded in Michigan, before the Jury.
In 2018, the year of Ms. Franklin’s death, the Estate value apparently was $18
million. In 2021, the IRS was paid $8 million in taxes and the Estate agreed
to set aside 40% of all music revenues in order to pay Federal taxes owing
by the Estate.
Assets such as Ms. Franklin’s real estate (several homes in Michigan), fur
coats, jewelry, her companies and bank accounts totaled $4.1 million.
However, the full value of the Estate cannot be estimated because, like Elvis
Presley’s Estate, it will continue to earn money, from licensing, royalties and
other sources related to Ms. Franklin’s music.
The Trial, concluded last week, went over two days. The jury held that the
2014 Will was the valid Will. The Court, meanwhile, in pronouncing the
Judgment, did allowMr.White, Jr. to argue for the incorporation of some of
the terms of the earlier Will (presumably because the more recent Will did
not cover all of the items from the earlier Will). The news sources do not
make that issue very clear. The main concern, though, is answered in the
validation of the 2014Will.
Though Ms. Franklin died at a relatively young age, her musical legacy will
live on. By anymeasure, she is among the all-time top artists.The fate of her
family is less clear. The sons remain seemingly divided.
This case is a strong example of the value of a clear,
written Will, properly made. A self-made Will was here
held to be valid but it is a question what impact it had on
Ms. Franklin’s family, not to mention the legal costs, in
this case, of taking Ms. Franklin’sWills to Court.