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The Aretha Franklin Estate Dispute: A Lesson in Holographic Wills and Estate Planning

In this article, we explain the dispute over Aretha Franklin's estate and the lessons it teaches about estate planning mistakes to avoid.

evident Editorial Team
July 18, 2023
courtroom, estate dispute

The world of music lost a legend when Aretha Franklin passed away in 2018. However, her death sparked a legal battle that has been a subject of interest in the legal community. This article explores the dispute over Franklin's estate, the concept of holographic wills, and the lessons we can learn from this case about estate planning.

Key Takeaways

The Aretha Franklin Estate Dispute: A Brief Overview

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, left behind a rich legacy and a sizable estate at her death. However, the absence of a formal will led to a family conflict that lasted more than four years. The dispute centered around two handwritten, or "holographic," wills discovered in Franklin's home after her death. One of these was found under a couch cushion, written in 2014, while the details of the second will remain undisclosed.

The family could not reach an agreement on which will represented Franklin's true wishes, leading to a legal battle that was finally resolved by a Michigan jury. After a two-day trial in a probate court in Pontiac, Michigan, the jury decided that the four-page document found under the couch cushion should serve as Franklin's will.

What is a Holographic Will?

A holographic will is a will that has been handwritten and signed by the person making the will, known as the testator. Unlike traditional wills, which are typically typed and witnessed by at least two individuals, a holographic will does not require witnesses. This type of will is often created in urgent situations or by those who choose to forgo the formalities of a traditional will.

However, not all jurisdictions recognize holographic wills. In those that do, the requirements can vary. Generally, the will must be entirely in the testator's handwriting and signed by them. Some jurisdictions also require the date of writing to be included. Despite their simplicity, holographic wills can lead to disputes due to their lack of clarity or the absence of witnesses, as seen in the Aretha Franklin estate dispute.

The Legal Battle Over Aretha Franklin's Holographic Wills

The legal battle over Aretha Franklin's holographic wills was a complex and drawn-out process. It began with the discovery of the wills and ended with a jury decision in a probate court. Here's a detailed account of the dispute:

  • Discovery of the Wills: After Franklin's death, two handwritten wills were discovered in her home. One of these, a four-page document written in 2014, was found under a couch cushion. The details of the second will have not been disclosed.
  • Family Conflict: The discovery of the wills led to a family conflict. Franklin's family members could not agree on which will represented her true wishes, leading to a legal dispute that lasted more than four years.
  • Probate Court Trial: The dispute was eventually taken to a probate court in Pontiac, Michigan. After a two-day trial, the jury was tasked with deciding which will should serve as Franklin's official will.
  • Jury Decision: The jury decided that the 2014 will found under the couch cushion was the valid will. This decision came after less than an hour of deliberation, ending the long-standing family conflict.

How Courts Determine the Validity of Holographic Wills

Determining the validity of a holographic will can be a complex process. Courts typically consider several factors:

  • Handwriting: The will must be entirely in the testator's handwriting. This is to ensure that the will was indeed written by the testator and not someone else.
  • Signature: The will must be signed by the testator. This serves as further proof that the will was written by the testator.
  • Intent: The will must clearly show that the testator intended it to serve as their will. This can be indicated by language used in the will, such as "I bequeath" or "I leave to".
  • Date: Some jurisdictions require the date of writing to be included in the will. This can help resolve disputes when multiple wills are present, as in the Franklin case.

Best Practices for Avoiding Estate Disputes

Estate disputes can be emotionally draining and financially costly for all parties involved. Here are some best practices for avoiding such disputes:

  • Hire a Lawyer: Engage a lawyer to draft your will. They can ensure that your will is legally sound and clearly expresses your wishes.
  • Update Your Will Regularly: Life changes, such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or acquisition of significant assets, should prompt a review and possible update of your will.
  • Communicate with Your Family: Discuss your estate plans with your family members. Clear communication can help prevent misunderstandings and disputes after your death.
  • Consider a No-Contest Clause: A no-contest clause can discourage beneficiaries from contesting your will. If a beneficiary contests the will and loses, they would forfeit their inheritance.
  • Choose an Executor Wisely: The executor of your will should be someone trustworthy and capable of carrying out your wishes as stated in your will.

By following these best practices, you can help ensure that your estate is distributed according to your wishes and avoid potential disputes among your heirs.

The Role of Lawyers in Estate Planning

Lawyers play a crucial role in estate planning. They can provide valuable advice on how to structure your estate to minimize taxes and avoid potential legal issues. A lawyer can also draft a will that clearly expresses your wishes and meets all legal requirements, reducing the chances of disputes among your heirs.

Furthermore, if your estate includes complex elements such as a business or significant assets, a lawyer can help navigate these complexities to ensure your assets are distributed as you wish.

The Importance of Regularly Updating Your Will

Regularly updating your will is essential to ensure it reflects your current wishes and circumstances. Major life events such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or acquisition of significant assets should prompt a review and possible update of your will.

Failing to update your will can lead to disputes among your heirs, as they may contest a will that they believe does not reflect your final wishes. Regular updates can help prevent such disputes and ensure your assets are distributed according to your most recent wishes.

Communicating Your Wishes to Your Family

Clear communication with your family about your estate plans can help prevent disputes after your death.

By discussing your plans with your family, you can ensure they understand your wishes and the reasons behind your decisions. This can help reduce misunderstandings and conflicts among your heirs. 

It's also a good idea to let your family know where you keep your will and other important documents, so they can easily find them when needed.

Conclusion: Lessons from the Aretha Franklin Estate Dispute

The Aretha Franklin estate dispute serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of proper estate planning. While holographic wills may seem like a simple solution, they can lead to disputes due to their lack of clarity and the absence of witnesses. 

By hiring a lawyer, regularly updating your will, and communicating with your family, you can help ensure your wishes are respected and avoid potential disputes among your heirs. 

Remember, a well-planned estate is one of the most valuable gifts you can leave your loved ones.