Aretha Franklin’s fortune and the note in the couch.

Posted in Estate Planning, Probate

When Aretha Franklin died late in the summer of 2018, many in the estate planning community were disappointed and surprised to learn that she did not have any estate plan in place. Forget the trusts, partnerships, and other entities that sometimes provide better planning and protection to the wealthy – she didn’t even have a last will and testament. With an estate estimated to be $17 million, Franklin appeared to have never done any planning to protect and distribute her assets at death.

Once the initial disbelief wore off, people were comforted to know that Michigan statutes would evenly distribute her estate to her four sons. She had lost some of the protections that planning offered and the administration would be more cumbersome and expensive without a will or trust, but at least it would work out fairly for the family, right? Well…

A year after her death, the situation went from sad to strange. After starting with no last will and testament, the family submitted three handwritten documents found in Franklin’s home that claim to be last wills and testaments (or other statements of intent). At least one was found under a couch cushion. These documents do not call for an equal distribution of the estate among her boys. Depending on which instrument you choose, there can be significant differences in inheritance between them.

Five moths after the handwritten documents were found, and seventeen months after her death, Aretha’s estate administration is mired in probate litigation with no end in sight. A hearing yesterday considered a number of competing motions and resulted in another hearing being scheduled for next month. The administrator of the estate has resigned due to the fighting between herself and the sons. Teams of lawyers are preparing for depositions where the brothers will be questioned about their mother, her competence, their relationships, and a host of other personal topics that are now destined for the public record. This could drag on for years and has likely already resulted in permanent fractures in the family. All because Ms. Franklin didn’t take the time and effort to get a last will and testament that costs less than a lot of families’ monthly cable bill.

You may not have a $17 million estate, but the issues you face in your planning are still the same. Ensuring you have a valid legal instrument that is enforceable and clearly states your intentions is important for everyone. It will provide for a more efficient and less expensive administration. It will not leave an opportunity for lawyers and judges to argue over what they believed you intended. Most importantly, it will allow you the comfort of knowing that the issue is done and that your family will know exactly what you wanted.

If you don’t have a last will and testament, trust, or other planning tool for the eventual distribution of your estate, get started now. Put a plan in place to ensure nothing like this happens to your estate and family. Our firm offers free estate planning consultations, flat fee pricing for many estate planning tools, and meetings by phone, video conference, or at one of our two convenient office locations. Send an email or make a telephone call and you could have your new plan in place in 2-3 weeks.