The Queen of Soul passed away almost a year ago, but a drama is ongoing as the courts determine how she intended to dispose of her estate.
The Conflicting Wills
When Aretha Franklin passed away in August 2018, her family believed that she hadn’t left a will. However, in May 2019, her family found three handwritten wills that gave conflicting direction on how to dispose of her estate. Two wills were found in a locked cabinet and the other was found in a spiral notebook that was stuffed underneath a couch cushion.
Each of the three documents states that her assets should be divided equally between her three younger sons and outlines instructions for the care of her eldest son, Clarence, who has special needs. Two of the wills were dated 2010 and one will was dated March 2014. All of the pages of the wills appear to be signed.
The purported wills are handwritten pages that were filled with scratched-out phrases and notes in the margins. They were not notarized or signed; however, this is not necessarily a problem because Franklin died in Michigan, which allows for “holographic” or handwritten wills. Handwritten wills are valid as long as they are signed and dated and the material portions of the document are in the testator’s handwriting. See MCL 700.2502(2).
David Bennett, who was Franklin’s attorney for more than 40 years, filed the wills in probate court in Oakland County, Michigan. Bennett told the judge that he was unsure if the will was valid. Franklin’s estate released a statement saying the two of her sons objected to the wills.
In the will that was supposedly written in 2014, Franklin named her son Teddy the executor of her estate. Teddy’s name was then crossed out and Kecalf’s name was written in. Kecalf’s name was followed by the name of Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens. Owens’ name was also crossed out.
At a probate court hearing, it was revealed that the estate has already distributed $350,000 to Franklin’s four sons and $178,000 was stolen from the singer via bank fraud months before her August 2018 death.
Attorneys for Franklin’s heirs argued over the estate, leading Judge Jennifer Callaghan to place the estate administration under court supervision. While Franklin’s niece Sabrina Owens will remain the personal representative for the estate, the court will now have a hands-on role in decisions such as the sale of any property.
Franklin’s son Kecalf Franklin hired forensic document specialist and handwriting expert Erich Speckin to examine the wills. Spreckin testified that it would take him about three hours to analyze the documents with equipment including a microscope and electrostatic device.
Speckin’s role is to affirm to the court that the will was written by Franklin in 2014 and that it has not been altered since. The other parties involved in Franklin’s estate (her sons Teddy and Clarence and her niece Sabrina) will also have the right to hire their own handwriting experts if they choose.