Aretha Franklin Probate Court Saga Continues

How do you envision your affairs being handled after you die? It’s a fair question to ask as you consider your estate, the planning associated with it, and the impacts on your children. Spending time on the website of an estate planning attorney like the Law Office of Bryan Fagan indicates that you are a person who wants to do what is right for your family and those around you. However, you probably also have questions about what to do and how to do it. We have so many sources of information these days for everything from wills to trusts to everything in between. Finding out the best and most accurate information and then being able to act on it is what estate planning is all about.

Planning is something that can get away from us if we let it. Take the situation which has developed further in recent weeks regarding the estate of singer Aretha Franklin. Ms. Franklin died in 2018 leaving behind multiple wills. Rather than work with an experienced estate planning attorney, Ms. Franklin chose to create a will using a pen and paper. In Texas, these are known as holographic wills. Ms. Franklin resided in Michigan and a probate court jury in Oakland County- just outside of Detroit- was recently tasked with deciding on behalf of the family of Ms. Franklin.

The main question that the jury was tasked with answering was which will of Ms. Franklin’s is valid: a 2010 will or a 2014 will. What is stressful, sad, and arguably unnecessary about this whole episode is that it has turned Ms. Franklin’s sons into opponents in the courtroom. Think about that for a moment as you put off estate planning or decide to leave a will halfway finished. Ms. Franklin almost certainly would not have wanted this to be the result of her life’s work- to see her sons in courtroom battles over her estate.

Here is how the situation unfolded. When Ms. Franklin died in 2018 it was initially believed that she died without a will. This ended up not being the case. Eventually, more than one handwritten will created by Ms. Franklin was found in various places inside the home of Ms. Franklin. On one side, is Ms. Franklin’s son Ted White II who argued that a 2010 will that was found in a locked cabinet in her home should be declared a valid will in the State of Michigan and should therefore control how her property and assets should be distributed.

On the other side stood two of Ms. Franklin’s sons- Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin. These two men argued to the jury that a 2014 handwritten will found in between couch cushions in Ms. Franklin’s home should be declared the will which is used to distribute property from the estate. Imagine that- a world-famous singer and performer and the will which will be used to divide up her estate was found on the couch. You would expect to find some loose change, maybe a candy bar wrapper or a paperclip on the couch. But a will? Especially the will of a wealthy celebrity? Not a chance. However, that is exactly how it turned out to be for Ms. Franklin and her family.

What was Ms. Franklin’s estate worth when she died and what is it worth now?

Let’s take a moment to examine what is known about the estate of Aretha Franklin. When Ms. Franklin died it was believed that her estate was worth approximately 80 million dollars. This is not a hard-to-believe figure given that she was an entertainer for over fifty years before she passed away. Throughout her life, Ms. Franklin entertained millions and was paid handsomely for doing so. When she passed away it was said that her attorney asked her, perhaps pleaded with her, to have a formal will created. However, Ms. Franklin resisted those requests and instead died with these handwritten wills, instead. That she died with a handwritten will is not the true issue here (although that may have complicated matters somewhat). The true issue in this situation is that she died with multiple wills.

An inventory filed with the probate court noted that Ms. Franklin’s estate was valued now at only $6 million. This almost complete loss in value over just five years can speak to several issues which are justified in discussing here today. First, when you do not have an estate plan the same outcome can happen to you. After you die, the property which you own must still be maintained. This means if you own a home or a condo there will still be homeowner’s fees, taxes, maintenance, and things of this nature to attend to. Your heirs or beneficiaries will not be expected to pay for those expenses. Rather, those bills will be paid by your estate.

Ms. Franklin’s estate did have a representative who was and is responsible for paying money toward taxes and things of this nature. He would not be able to distribute property until a decision could be made on this will dispute and a determination was made on how the property could be divided up. Let this be a lesson to you and me. Even the estates of wealthy entertainers can be drained of value in just a matter of a few years. What your family, friends, and others are left with is a fraction of the property which otherwise may have been available to them.

There is a way to avoid a situation like this playing out in your own life. Even if you don’t have millions of dollars in assets like Ms. Franklin, you can still take proactive steps towards preparing your estate and doing whatever you can to make sure that when you die your family can concern themselves with remembering you the person rather than you the person who died with a bad estate plan- or none. The attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan are here to help you develop an estate plan by teaching you about the law. That is how you can make good decisions for yourself and do what you think is best for your family. We are not here to substitute our judgment for yours or to make decisions for you. Rather, we are here to help you learn about the law, and that way you can be the one to chart a course for your estate planning.

Make life easier for those around you by planning your estate well

To say that Ms. Franklin died without having engaged in any estate planning would be incorrect. She did create a plan for her estate, but the trouble came into being when it was discovered that she had multiple wills which on their faces could have been declared as valid. Both wills which became a part of this recently completed probate court case were handwritten. Like most of us, Ms. Franklin did not have perfect penmanship and as a result, her wills were somewhat difficult to read and understand. This is why a handwriting expert was called in to review the documents and provide testimony about what the wills said.

The 2014 will be favored by two of Ms. Franklin’s sons and the one which was ultimately declared as valid and controlling was found in between couch cushions. However, this did not make the will any less valid or any less able to reflect the wishes of Ms. Franklin. To that point, a will in Texas (and apparently in Michigan) does not need to be kept in a specific place. You can choose to keep your will in a safe deposit box, in a file folder, in an attorney’s office, or anywhere for that matter. However, you need to have a will that contains an executor, signed by you, and witnessed by two people to be declared valid. Once you have established all of these elements you can keep the will wherever you choose.

Lawyers for Ms. Franklin’s two sons made that argument to a jury of six people in Michigan. That the will for Ms. Franklin was found on the couch may not seem like a great place for a millionaire to keep an important document but that is what ended up happening in this situation. As a result, the circumstances can make it seem like it is an invalid will based on the apparent lack of planning associated with the will and where it would be stored. The argument from the other side could have gone something like this: If this will be considered by Ms. Franklin to be her last will, the one that she desired to divide up all of her life’s property, don’t you think that she would have put some more thought and planning into where it would be kept? This was not an argument that won over the jury in this case.

What property do you own?

This is a somewhat simple question for most of us. Determining the property, we own should be as simple as opening your bank account and determining the contents of our checking and savings accounts. Next, you could go into your investments and determine what retirement and non-retirement accounts you have in your name. Do you own cryptocurrency, a small business, vehicles, or investment real estate? Get a firm grasp on the property which you own to be better prepared for the planning stages of a will. The more prepared you can be the better off you are when you start the estate planning process.

From there, it is a good idea to consider what the property you own is worth. A home or raw land property can be determined quickly by comparing the asset to similar properties in that area. Investments have an immediate value that can fluctuate but is otherwise not something that you would need to perform a great deal of research to determine value. Some properties like classic cars, collections of other sorts, or any asset for which there is not a defined market can take some time to determine the value. Do not let this put you in a position where you feel like it will take too much effort to determine the value. Even if the property or item will take some effort to value it is worth your time to do so.

The reason why I say that it is worth your time to begin to appraise the estate is due to its importance when determining who gets what in your will. For example, if you know in advance that your estate is worth approximately $2 million then you will be able to account for this when you are trying to divide the property in a way that is fair and based on your desired outcome. What you do not want to get into is a situation where you do not know the value of your property and you are forced to make decisions that have long-term impacts on your family and those around you. As Ms. Franklin’s family can attest, a person only gets one lifetime to make decisions and plan out their estate. Rather than put yourself in a position where your family must concern itself with matters like court dates rather than mourning your loss, why not go through the effort now to plan your estate to the best of your ability?

What about Ms. Franklin’s fourth son?

Ms. Franklin had four children during her lifetime but thus far we have only discussed three of them. Ms. Franklin’s fourth son is a man named Clarence Franklin. Unfortunately, Mr. Franklin lives under guardianship in an assisted living facility. He did not play a part in the trial. If you have a person with special needs or someone with a disability whom you would like to help care for as a result of having an estate plan then this is more reason to prepare your estate and get your will drafted.

Not having a will can put you and your family in a situation where your estate will likely need to go through probate. While this may also be true even if you do have a will the chances of needing to go through probate increased dramatically without a will. The reason for this is that a court will need to appoint an administrator for your estate and give this person the authority to begin contacting creditors and ultimately distribute property to heirs. An heir search will also need to be performed so that any person who is legally able to come forward may do so from your family.

This process takes time and money to accomplish. Your estate will pay for the court costs and other fees associated with needing to go to court and this is money that could otherwise be spent towards the benefit of your family. When there is someone in your family with special needs or a disability, he or she could likely use that money sooner rather than later. If you want to be able to help benefit these people specifically then you can account for them in your estate plan by having a will and being intentional about how you structure your estate and any documents which are related to it.

You may want to ensure, for example, that this person can stay with a particular caregiver or at a particular facility where he or she has been living. To best ensure this possibility you can account for certain property or assets to be used towards this person’s care. Rather than leave up to chance how your loved one will be cared for in the future you can take concrete steps towards benefiting him or her. The most efficient and functional way to do this would be to plan your estate and have your loved one receive property after giving the matter a great deal of thought. Otherwise, you may be left with a situation where your loved one does not receive the care that he or she needs or at the very least has questions about the type of care that will be received in the future.

What the family of Ms. Franklin went through in a Michigan probate court is not something that anyone would like to see their family struggle with. You can begin to take steps that can benefit your family tremendously by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney today. It does not take much effort or time to sit down for a free-of-charge consultation with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. We can help you to prepare the beginnings of an estate plan while answering questions about the most pressing estate planning-related matters you have in your life.

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