At first, Aretha Franklin’s family believed that dividing their estate after her death in 2018 would be a straightforward task: without a known will, the famous singer’s assets would be distributed equally among her four children.
But months after Franklin’s funeral, a family member found documents, handwritten and detailing her wishes—one placed under a sofa cushion in her suburban Detroit home, the other in a locked closet—plunging the estate into uncertainty.
In the four years that followed, Franklin’s sons squabbled in Michigan probate court over which of the conflicting documents should take precedence. On Monday, the case heads to trial, with the exact distribution of Franklin’s remaining fortune, property rights, and music at stake.
said Craig A. Smith, attorney for Edward Franklin, the singer’s second-eldest son: “I think they all wish this matter had been settled a week after her death.” “But they don’t blame anyone – that’s what it is.”
At issue at trial is which document reflects Franklin’s wishes before she died, at age 76, of pancreatic cancer.
Two of her sons, Edward and Kecalf Franklin, maintain that the document in a spiral notebook under the sofa cushions, dated March 2014 and largely endorsing Kecalf, should be considered primary. Another son, Ted White Jr., maintains that the papers in the safe, dated June 2010, should take precedence.
The jury could also decide that neither document is a legitimate will, reverting to an equal division of the singer’s estate among her children, based on Michigan law. There is also a possible combined solution in which elements from both documents are taken into account.
Franklin’s eldest son, Clarence Franklin, who suffers from mental illness and is under legal guardianship, has long been a player in the legal maneuvering, as 2014 looks set to see him inherit much less than his siblings. But in recent weeks, his representatives have reached a settlement over an undisclosed percentage of the estate. As a result, they will not take sides in the trial, said Joseph Buttiglieri, attorney for the Clarence Franklin trustee.
The avant-garde musician known as the Queen of Soul, Franklin won 18 Grammy Awards, had more than 100 singles on the Billboard charts, and left behind the trappings of a superstar: four houses, several cars, furs, jewelry, and gold records. The total estate was estimated at $18 million after her death, Smith said, although another assessment suggests the number may be lower.
But Franklin, who was known to be very private about her finances, was also left with a large tax liability. In 2021, her estate reached an agreement with the Internal Revenue Service to repay about $8 million in federal income taxes by setting aside a portion of any new revenue from music royalties or projects such as the final Hollywood biopic starring Jennifer Hudson.
At the heart of the trial are more than a dozen pages of Franklin’s written wishes, full of crosswords and insertions. The process of interpreting a deceased person’s intentions from the lines of a handwritten document can be confusing and contentious, a process that made for a poignant story in the HBO series “Succession.” In the show’s final season, the paterfamilias’ heirs struggled to decipher Pencil attachments For his last wishes found in the closet.
Efforts to determine Franklin’s true desires resulted in three voicemail messages, recorded months before the singer’s death, in which she discussed another will she was preparing with real estate attorney, Henry Grix.
In the letters, played out in court earlier this year, Franklin said she had already decided on some details about her estate, including that she wanted to sell her pianos at Sotheby’s auction, but indicated she would leave other decisions in the future. Meeting at the lawyer’s office.
Ted White Jr., whose father was Franklin’s business manager and her first husband, asked the court to favor documents that Mr. Grix, an experienced estate planning attorney, had drafted in the last three years of the singer’s life, arguing that they were. The latest expression of her desires. But the judge overseeing the case, Jennifer S. Callahan, excluded the documents from consideration at trial, citing testimony from Mr. Grikes asserting that he had left the impression that Franklin had “not made up her mind” about the will.
“It is clear to this court,” Justice Callahan wrote in a May decision, “that the attorney appointed to commemorate the decedent’s estate plan did not believe that the decedent had yet come to a fully definitive plan.”
This leaves two documents for the six members of the jury to consider.
In a 2014 document, three of Franklin’s children—minus Clarence—would receive equal shares of their mother’s music royalties, but the distribution of her personal estate would be weighted in Kecalf’s favour. According to the document, Kikalev will receive two of the four houses and the singer’s cars, the number of which is not specified.
In court papers, Keklev Franklin’s attorney argued that the 2014 document should be considered a legal will because it is the most recent handwritten document by Franklin outlining her plans. (There is disagreement as to whether the singer officially signed the document. One side says a smiley face paired with “Franklin” represented her signature on the last page of the document; the other disagreed.)
Mr Smith said that although his client, Edward Franklin, would benefit more financially if the wills were declared invalid, his client supports the 2014 document because he believes “it is what Aretha wanted”.
Strongly contrary to the 2014 will, Mr. White, whose attorney, Kurt A. sofa cushion.”
As evidence in support of the 2010 document, which sets out weekly and monthly allowances for the four sons, Mr. Olson pointed to the fact that it was notarized and that Franklin had signed every page.
Mr. White has yet to sign the settlement reached over the Clarence Franklin piece of estate, and it will eventually be subject to a judge’s approval.
Witnesses at the trial, which is expected to last less than a week at Oakland County Probate Court in Pontiac, Michigan, likely include some of Franklin’s sons; The person who notarized the estate document for the year 2010; Handwriting expert. and the niece of singer Sabrina Owens, who discovered the potential wills in 2019. Ms. Owens initially served as Franklin’s personal representative — similar to the role of an executor — until disagreements within the family prompted her resignation.
Nicholas E. Papasifakis, a real estate attorney from Michigan, is currently serving as Franklin’s personal representative and is not taking sides in the dispute between the heirs.
After the trial is over and the estate is settled, there will still be issues that require cooperation within the divided family. Resumes or homages require universal agreement, said Mr. Smith, the attorney representing Edward Franklin, unless the heirs appoint a business manager to manage such decisions.
“Hopefully, everyone will get a little better after this problem is resolved,” he said.