Legendary singer Aretha Franklin reportedly left three handwritten wills in her home in the Detroit Suburbs, after initial reports indicated that she had not made one, but now there are questions about whether the documents will be considered legal.
Franklin was 76 when she died from cancer last year, and while her personal lawyer said he “was after her for a number of years” to create a will, it appears she had taken advice, though perhaps without telling him.
One of the wills was discovered under couch cushions, while two were said to be in a locked cabinet. The singer was said to be notoriously private about her finances.
Two of the wills were from 2010, while the most recent one is from March 2014. The most recent will typically cancel the earlier ones.
New York attorney Natalie Elisha Gold told FOX Business that a handwritten will is typically referred to as a holographic and it is allowable in some states. Gold says that in Michigan, in order for a holographic to hold up it will need to be dated, signed by the testator, contain material portions in the testator’s handwriting and it must be evident that the document was intended to serve as the will.
“It seems clear from what we know that there was a date on the will and that it said last will and testament on the document,” Gold said.
A lawyer for Franklin filed the three documents in court on Monday. However, according to the estate, two of Franklin’s four sons object to the wills. That’s another factor that might mean Franklin's will may not hold up.
“Had Aretha taken the steps to have a lawyer preside over her will, it is likely she would have had more posthumous control of her affairs,” Gold said. “Now, there is undoubtedly a legal battle that won’t do well to give Aretha her final R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
As previously reported by FOX Business, without a plan in place, Franklin’s property would be distributed in probate court by a process known as intestate succession. While the laws in every state are different regarding the division of assets, usually – without legal documents – a portion of the deceased’s belongings are divided equally among children, while some generally go to a spouse. The state where the death occurred will have jurisdiction over who gets what.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not always clear cut.
“It gets a lot more complicated if you have things like a farm or a family vacation house. Or if you have music and publishing rights, as in the case of Aretha Franklin,” Dave Hanley, CEO and founder of the will and trust creation app Tomorrow, told FOX Business.
For the average person, intestate succession can end up costing more because the process has to go through the court system.
“It’s not about saving taxes, but it is about saving money,” Amy Joyce, partner at Margolin, Winer & Evens, previously told FOX Business. “[Creating a will] is generally very inexpensive … It may end up saving the family in the future ten times what it costs [to make one]. It’s a relatively small financial investment for peace of mind.”
Experts told FOX Business people should create wills as soon as they become legal adults, updating them throughout their lives. A will does not go into effect until an individual dies.