Sorting Aretha Franklin’s Wills Could Take Longer Than the Prince Estate

LOS ANGELES, May 31, 2019 / As featured in Daily Journal / Contributor: Scott Rahn, RMO LLP

With the recent discoveries of multiple purported handwritten wills from the late soul legend Aretha Franklin, what the heirs initially thought would be a straightforward case is now looking to be a lengthier court process than Prince’s estate, which is still being probated several years after the pop icon’s death.

Of all the lessons learned since Prince’s death on April 21, 2016, the most obvious is: If you die without a will, you potentially leave behind a mess for your family. For Prince’s estate this means approximately $10 million in legal fees, and years of unnecessary conflicts about how to best manage the estate’s assets.

The Prince estate recently passed an unpleasant milestone: Three years and counting to sort out his estate, believed to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The estate will has not been officially valued or disbursed to the heirs (his six siblings), USA Today recently reported.

So, the latest news about Franklin begs the question: When you’re a wealthy superstar, is it worse to leave behind no will, or several?

When Aretha Franklin died in August of 2018, it was believed that she too had left behind no will, and that her assets would be divided equally amongst her four sons under Michigan probate law. But the discovery of multiple handwritten wills in her couch cushions and cabinets muddled that plan. Now, the Michigan probate court will have to decide whether these handwritten or “holographic” wills are legitimate in the eyes of the law. The illegibility of her handwriting in some parts makes it unclear how she planned to divvy out her assets, which can make all or part of the affected document unenforceable.

According to The New York Times, the possibility of wholesale changes to the estate has already stirred divisions among Franklin’s sons, with two of them supporting the most recent will, from 2014, and two opposing it.

Successful celebrities like Prince and Aretha commonly get involved in all kinds of things: They buy houses, have all kinds of art and jewelry, and often owe or made promises to more people than they could ever remember, all of whom come calling when they pass. But there is only one “pot of gold,” and it is hardly ever as big as everyone thinks it is. Certainly never big enough for the beneficiaries or creditors positioning themselves to receive some of it.

Why Franklin chose to write her own will(s) is unknown, but if her sons want to control the outcome of the estate they would be best-served to resolve the dispute before spending significant monies on lawyers and court fees, because as soon as one of the handwritten wills is accepted there no longer will be much room for negotiation. Someone will win. Someone will lose. And an appeal by the losing party will only further drive up the costs and defer distribution of the estate. Because of the numerous competing documents, persons and interests, on top of the normal administration that is already under way, it would not surprise me if Aretha’s estate too more than three years to sort out. In fact, it would shock me if it took less than that.

While lawyers should always strive to find solutions that help their clients resolve their cases sooner and for less legal spend, cases like this don’t always lend themselves to that. You have to constantly seek opportunities to create decision points if you are going to have any chance at bringing almost any celebrity trust or probate administration or litigation to a swift and cost-effective end. The decision to accept or reject the handwritten wills will have huge ramifications for the heirs to the Franklin estate.

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About the Author

Scott Rahn, Founding Partner​

Scott Rahn resolves contests, disputes and litigation related to trusts, estates and conservatorships, creating a welcome peace of mind for clients. He represents heirs, beneficiaries, trustees and executors. He utilizes his experience to develop and implement strategies that swiftly and efficiently address the financial issues, fiduciary duties and emotional complexities underlying trust contests, estates conflicts and probate litigation.

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