Jim Witt—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
Once in a while, the estate planning steps taken by a decedent make you wonder if he or she was intentionally leaving a mess. When Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died as a result of pancreatic cancer at age 76 on August 16, 2018, no will was filed. Her family believed that she died intestate. If that had been the case, her net estate would have simply been divided under Michigan law into four equal shares, one for each of her sons, Clarence, Edward, Ted, and Kecalf. In May 2019, however, the family discovered three wills written by Franklin, two from 2010 were found in a locked cabinet, and one from 2014 was found in a spiral notebook left under a couch cushion. The wills seemed fairly evenhanded as among the four sons, but there were questions raised as to the documents' validity by a number of contradictory provisions and the problem with deciphering some of the writing, not to mention numerous underlinings, strikeouts, and marginal notes; much of the writing seemed to be in a stream of consciousness mode.
The wills were detailed as to intended bequests and allowances. A major problem arose as to the appointment of a personal representative for the estate. At first, the four sons agreed that their cousin, Franklin's niece and confidante, Sabrina Owens, would serve as executor. But then, in May 2019, Owens’s and Franklin's longtime attorney, David Bennett, announced that one of the 2010 wills and the 2014 will expressed Franklin's wishes as to whom she wanted to manage her estate; one of the 2010 wills nominated Owens and Franklin's son, Ted. In Spring 2020, following a hearing, Owens resigned, and an attorney, Reginald Burns, who was slated to become president of the American Bar Association, became temporary personal representative.
The Aretha Franklin estate was estimated to be worth $17 million, including master recordings and publishing rights worth an estimated $10.5 million. No later developments as to the administration of the estate have been reported. If there were ever an estate that called for careful estate planning, Aretha Franklin's estate was definitely it.