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Trouble In Paradise: Aretha Franklin’s Sons Battle Over Handwritten Wills

Even five years after her passing, the final wishes of music icon Aretha Franklin remain uncertain. A unique trial will begin Monday to determine which of her two handwritten wills, one found in couch cushions, will govern the administration of her estate. Despite her prolonged health issues and efforts to create a formal, typewritten will, the Queen of Soul, who had four sons, did not have one. However, Michigan law allows other documents, even those with scribbles, overwritten, and illegible passages, to be considered as her directives.

Trouble In Paradise: Aretha Franklin’s Sons Battle Over Handwritten Wills, Yours Truly, News, May 29, 2024

A family dispute has arisen between a son and his siblings over controlling their late mother’s estate. Ted White II favours a document from 2010, while his brothers Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin support a 2014 document. The papers were found in their mother’s suburban Detroit home several months after she passed from pancreatic cancer at 76.

According to Pat Simasko, an expert in wills and estates who also teaches elder law at Michigan State University College of Law, it’s unsurprising when someone passes away without getting their affairs in order. He said,

“This can be settled any time, on the steps, halfway through trial,”  “And hopefully, it will be. Going to a jury trial is a war.”

Franklin was a legendary artist who rose to global fame with her timeless hits such as “Think,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Respect.” Her passing was mourned worldwide, and in death, she received royal treatment, with her body being carried in a 1940 Cadillac hearse to a Detroit museum where thousands paid their respects in August 2018.

It was discovered that Franklin had passed away without leaving a will. As a result, her four sons are expected to divide up her considerable assets, which include valuable real estate in suburban Detroit, luxurious furs and gowns, precious jewellery, and future royalties from her works. To manage her estate, her niece Sabrina Owens has taken on the role of personal representative or executor.

Trouble In Paradise: Aretha Franklin’s Sons Battle Over Handwritten Wills, Yours Truly, News, May 29, 2024

At the funeral, Franklin’s friend and businessman, Ron Moten, advised the sons to take their time, exercise caution, and make wise decisions.

During spring 2019, the estate was thrown into chaos when a handwritten will from 2010 was discovered in a cabinet, and another handwritten will from 2014 was found in a notebook under cushions at Franklin’s residence. Although both documents suggested that the sons would share income from music and copyrights, there were discrepancies between them. The older will list White and Owens as co-executors and mandate that Kecalf and Edward Franklin complete business classes and obtain a certificate or degree to receive any benefits from the estate. However, the 2014 version removed White as executor and replaced them with Kecalf Franklin without mentioning business classes. The estate granted Franklin’s primary home in Bloomfield Hills, valued at $1.1 million when she passed away, to Kecalf Franklin and his grandchildren, which is worth much more today.

In 2014, Aretha Franklin expressed her desire to auction off her gowns or donate them to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. She also clarified in both documents that her oldest son, Clarence, who is currently under guardianship, should receive regular support.

Trouble In Paradise: Aretha Franklin’s Sons Battle Over Handwritten Wills, Yours Truly, News, May 29, 2024

Attorney Charles McKelvie clarified that conflicting wills could not be considered for probate, prioritising the more recent one over earlier versions. In the case of Kecalf Franklin, McKelvie supported the 2014 will’s validity. However, Kurt Olson, White’s attorney, argued that the 2010 will was notarized and signed, while the later version was only a draft. In Olson’s opinion, if the document were meant to be a will, more care would have been taken than simply placing it in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion.

According to Simasko, a law instructor, it is possible to carry out final wishes in Michigan using an informal will.

“If you’re sitting there on a Sunday afternoon and you start handwriting your own wishes, the law allows it as long as the rules are followed: It’s in your handwriting, it’s dated and it’s signed,”

Three different executors managed Aretha Franklin’s estate over five years. However, in 2020, Owens resigned from his duties due to a “rift” among the sons.

Trouble In Paradise: Aretha Franklin’s Sons Battle Over Handwritten Wills, Yours Truly, News, May 29, 2024

Reginald Turner, a local lawyer and former president of the American Bar Association, succeeded the late Franklin. In March, he reported that the estate had earned $3.9 million in income over the previous year and spent a similar amount, which included over $900,000 in legal fees paid to various firms. The estate’s assets, mainly cash and real estate, were valued at $4.1 million, while the value of Franklin’s intellectual property and creative works was only listed at $1. According to court records, the estate has had to pay at least $8.1 million to the Internal Revenue Service since 2020, as the agency had a claim for taxes following the singer’s passing.

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