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Musical Master, Estate Planning Disaster: Aretha Franklin

Musical Master, Estate Planning Disaster

This is the first installment of our Musical Master / Estate Planning Disaster series where attorney Keenan Copple combines her love of music and her expertise in estate planning to tell the stories of famous artists who’ve had estate planning disasters.

Vol. 1: Aretha Franklin

Full disclosure: I love Aretha Franklin.  When I was a kid, my younger sister picked Aretha’s Gold almost every damn time it was her turn to choose a CD in the car.  Sometimes if we were on a road trip through the hinterregions of Nebraska, she would pick it again for her second turn.  I realize I may have a touch of musical Stockholm Syndrome, but I could listen to that album right now and enjoy it just as much as I did the first, fiftieth and five-hundredth times I heard it.  And yes, music snobs, I know Aretha’s Gold is basically a greatest hits album, but what were you listening to when you were ten?

So, given my life long love for Aretha, it pains me a little that the moral of the story is that if you are considering a DIY estate plan, as Aretha puts it in the movie The Blues Brothers, “you better think about the consequences of your actions.”

Estate Planning Disaster

Ms. Franklin passed away August 16, 2018 at the age of 76.  I smiled when I saw the coverage of her funeral. It was an eight hour, televised affair that made the pharaohs look pretty low-key about death and the afterlife.  I think she would have approved.

But man, her estate plan (if you can call it that) left something to be desired.  Initial reports indicated that Aretha Franklin died “intestate.” That means she was thought to have died without a will.  In such cases, each state’s law prescribes who will inherit your stuff, and in what amounts. Usually it goes to the following relations (or some combination of them) in the following order of priority:

  • Spouse
  • Kids
  • Parents
  • Siblings, etc.

Ms. Franklin was not married at the time of her death so, everybody assumed her four sons (Clarence, Edward, Theodore and Kecalf) would inherit her vast fortune equally pursuant to Michigan’s intestacy laws.  Her family mutually agreed to have Aretha’s niece, Sabrina Owens, appointed as the personal representative of the estate. A “personal representative” is the person that administers your estate. They typically work with an attorney to handle any probate proceedings, distribute your property, and wrap up your affairs.  At the outset, Aretha’s family agreed Sabrina Owens would be a great choice because she is a successful university administrator with the business acumen to handle such a massively valuable estate.

But, the plot thickened considerably this spring when Ms. Owens was working to clean out Aretha Franklin’s suburban Detroit home.  Ms. Owens found three handwritten wills.  Two were from 2010.  One was from 2014. The 2014 will was found in a spiral notebook in Ms. Franklin’s couch cushions and, because it is the most recent, it is the document that will control if the probate court determines it is a valid will.  NPR describes this 2014 will as follows: “Some of the four-page document is nearly illegible, and it is full of cross outs and notes added to the margins.”  You may be wondering how that could be considered a valid will?  Well, in most states, if a “will” is in the decedent’s handwriting and a couple other requirements are met, it can be considered a valid will.  These types of handwritten wills are called holographic wills.

You can find images of the 2014 will online and it is a certified mess!  Honestly, I can’t even read most of it.  Apparently there are names crossed out and blanks with arrows pointing to the blanks saying “fill in later.”  Though you can criticize the will all you want, you can’t criticize her intentions. They are the same intentions most of my clients have.  It appears that she wanted to:

  • fairly apportion her assets among her children
  • ensure her disabled child was not taken advantage of
  • and make sure that her legacy was managed wisely.

Unfortunately, because of Aretha’s DIY approach, her family will be forestalled in achieving those goals.  At this time, two of her sons are arguing in court that the 2014 document is not a valid will. Other members of her family are asserting it does qualify as a valid holographic will.  Kecalf is asking to be appointed as the personal representative instead of  Ms. Owens.  Handwriting experts have been hired, briefs have been drafted, hearings have been held.  Now, because of the dispute and resulting uncertainty, Ms. Owens has indicated that she is having difficulty negotiating certain contracts related to the rights to Ms. Franklin’s music and may have to begin selling off real estate to deal with the delay and expense of litigation.

Because the three wills are partially contradictory, incomplete and of questionable validity there is a smorgasbord of issues for attorneys to litigate.  So, even if the court finds that the 2014 writing is a valid holographic will, the court may have to fall back on the 2010 wills and/or the intestacy statutes to fill in the gaps.  Ultimately, the family is going to have to come to an agreement and settle or fight it out in court. If they choose the latter, it may take years to resolve and cost thousands upon thousands in legal fees.

It appears that Aretha Franklin had the best intentions.  She was an incredibly talented woman. Aretha was barely a teenager when her first two sons were born, and despite being a teenage, single mother, she built a musical empire.  She wanted to provide for her sons and make sure her legacy was managed wisely. But, by trying to go the DIY route with her estate plan, she may have frustrated those objectives considerably.  I have to say that it is truly puzzling “why someone of Aretha’s stature didn’t just save her family the extra expenses and headache by simply hiring an estate planner to draft her will.”  But, I’d prefer to stop dwelling on Aretha’s estate planning disaster.  I’d rather write about what an amazing musician she was.

Music Master

Let’s start with her voice. In my opinion, she was the greatest singer. Ever. Period. Her voice rises and falls, begs and commands, whispers and screams in all the right places.  Just listen to “I Never Loved a Man (the Way that I Love You).”  If you don’t think that’s a great song and an incomparable vocal performance, I think it is possible that you are dead inside.  I don’t always agree with Rolling Stone magazine, but I agree with their decision to name Aretha Franklin the No. 1 singer of all time.

She was such an amazing singer that her excellent piano playing and songwriting went unnoticed by a lot of people.  You should check out my favorite Aretha Franklin album, Live at the Fillmore West, and the songs “Spirit in the Dark” and “Spirit in the Dark-Reprise”, in particular.  Spoiler alert: she brings Ray Charles out to sing with her on the encore. There’s a gem on the video that doesn’t make the album version.  When Ray Charles comes out, he tries to sit down at Aretha’s organ.  You can hear her say “Nah, daddy, I’m going to play.” She graciously gives him a turn later (and he slays it), but I think it is safe to say virtually nobody else was cool enough to say that to Ray Charles.

I also really love the part in the documentary Muscle Shoals devoted to Aretha’s recording sessions with The Swampers down at Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  As one of the studio musicians put it in this little clip, “there was an aura around her real thick.  The girl was special.” Honestly, if you like music at all, and haven’t seen Muscle Shoals yet, you should just watch the whole thing.  Perhaps as a reward for calling your friendly, neighborhood estate planning attorney (wink, nudge).

Aretha wrote a number of great songs (Spirit in the Dark, Rock Steady, Dr. Feelgood, Day Dreaming, and Since You’ve Been Gone, to name a few).  But, another remarkable thing about Aretha’s musical prowess is that if she covered a song, it was hers.  She owned it. Otis Redding was no slouch, but his prior version of Respect seems a little limp next to Aretha’s version.  I am particularly fond of Aretha’s version of “The Weight,” which was originally written and performed by The Band.  On the Aretha version, you get her voice and Duane Allman playing guitar.  You can’t beat that with a stick, as my dad used to say.

Aretha Franklin was the whole package.  She was an absolutely peerless vocalist.  She wrote a mean song, played great piano and she enjoyed a decorated career spanning five decades.  Look, you are never going to be able to sing as well as Aretha Franklin, but you can easily have a better estate plan.

The Takeaway

I will leave you with the following advice: do not, I repeat, do not try to DIY your estate plan.  It is very likely that you will do more harm than good. Put down the spiral notebook and call an estate planning attorney.  I also strongly recommend that you download or order Aretha Franklin’s Live at Fillmore West or any of the other aforementioned albums.  In both instances, you will probably be glad you did.