The more than four-year family feud over Aretha Franklin’s estate came to an end Tuesday when a Michigan jury decided what her family couldn’t — which of the two handjacked wills represented the famous singer’s wishes for how her estate should be divided.
After a two-day trial in probate court in Pontiac, Michigan, a six-person jury decided after less than an hour of deliberation that a four-page document written by Franklin in 2014 — and discovered under a sofa cushion in her home, months after Franklin’s 2018 death — It must act as her will.
The ruling resolved the biggest issue hanging over Franklin’s estate, creating a plan for how the income and assets from her estate would be divided.
“We want to exhale now,” Keklev Franklin, one of the singer’s four children, said outside the courtroom. “It has been five long years for my family and children.”
After the singer’s death, at the age of 76, her family believed she had no will. Under Michigan law, her assets would have been divided equally among her four sons: Keckalf, Edward, Clarence Franklin, and Ted White Jr.
But months later, in May 2019, the two handwritten documents were found in Franklin’s home in suburban Detroit—one in a locked closet, the other in a spiral notebook in the couch—instantly splitting the singer’s children. It also raised questions about how the music and other revenues from the estate – as well as such cherished items as Franklin’s furs, jewelry and musical instruments – would be distributed.
Neither document was prepared by a lawyer, and it lists neither witness, although the first was notarized. Both had detailed lists of assets, along with what appeared to be odd information, such as dismissive comments about some of the men in Franklin’s life.
In the absence of a will traditionally being executed, the jury was left to decide whether the 2014 document met the criteria of Michigan law, which allows for “holographicor handwritten wills.
Wills divided Franklin’s assets differently. Earlier he determined the weekly and monthly allowances for each of Franklin’s four sons. It also stipulated that Kecalf and Edward “shall take lessons in business and obtain a degree or certificate” to collect from the estate.
In the later will, three of Franklin’s children—all but Clarence—would receive equal shares of their mother’s music royalties, but Kekalfe and his children would receive more of Franklin’s personal property. According to the document, Kekalfe will receive his mother’s primary home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan — valued at $1.1 million at the time of her death — as well as the singer’s cars. According to a report filed with the court in March, Franklin owned a Mercedes-Benz, two Cadillacs, and a Thunderbird convertible.
Kecalf and Edward favored this later document, saying that it represented her final wishes and superseded the earlier document. White, a longtime guitarist in his mother’s band, defended Will in 2010; At about a dozen pages, this document is much more detailed, and contains Franklin’s signature on every page.
“Yeah, there’s nothing that says you can’t keep a will in a spiral notebook in your couch cushion,” Kurt A. Olson, White’s attorney, said in his opening statement. “The biggest problem here, what is its intention?”
According to Craig A. Smith, Edward Franklin’s attorney, the sons agreed to support Clarence, the singer’s first child, who, according to court papers, suffers from mental illness.
The judge overseeing the case, Jennifer S. Callahan, said that although the 2014 will was proven correct by a jury, White could still make arguments that some aspects of the earlier document could be incorporated into the estate plan.
As the probate case worked its way through court over the years, it became combative. Kekalfe accused Sabrina Owens, the cousin who was initially elected to run the estate, of mismanagement. She resigned from the position in 2020, citing a “rift” that had developed in the family.
In the small courtroom this week, there was still an apparent coldness between Keckalf and Edward and Ted White Jr. And no handshake was exchanged, no small talk, no eye contact between the grown men, who sat shoulder to shoulder. Bench behind their lawyers.
White held his wife’s hand throughout the trial. He said the brothers are hard on each other in court but still talk otherwise.
“We’re as close to three old men as we can get,” White told a reporter inside the courtroom on Monday.
After the trial ended, Kekalfe denied that there was any blood between him and White. He said, “I love my brother with all my heart.”
There has been no dispute that Franklin wrote the documents, although there is debate as to whether the 2014 will was properly signed – the smiley face appears to replace the first letter of her first name.
“Why would anyone sign a document if it was just a draft?” asked Charles L. McKelvey, Keckoff’s attorney, in court.
After Franklin’s death, her estate was worth $18 million, according to Smith. In 2021, the estate reached a deal with the Internal Revenue Service to reimburse about $8 million in federal income taxes; Under the agreement, the estate said it would set aside 40 percent of revenue — including music and licensing royalties, as well as income from projects like “Respect,” the 2021 biopic starring Jennifer Hudson — to pay federal taxes owed on the estate, as well as Estimated taxes due from heirs.
This year’s court accounting document lists $4.1 million in personal property and real estate, including several homes in Michigan; $42,000 in furs; $73,000 in jewelry; companies and accounts related to Franklin’s music; and just over $1 million in bank balances. The accounting firm did not attempt to estimate future profits from its real estate licensing rights.