Holographic Queen of Soul? Aretha Franklin Died With 3 Handwritten Wills

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07:  Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Commemorates Its 25th Year And Honors Founder Sir Elton John During New York Fall Gala at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on November 7, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 22, 2019 9:00 AM

Contrary to what was reported at the time of her death, Aretha Franklin did have a will. In fact, she had three of them, all handwritten, the most recent of which was jotted in a spiral notebook found under cushions in her living room couch.

So, are any of these wills valid? And if so, which ones?

Where There's a Will ...

According to the AP, two wills from 2010 were found in a locked cabinet after a key was located, and the other, dated March 2014, inside a spiral notebook under cushions. The wills -- some of which are hard to decipher and contain words scratched out and phrases in the margins -- purport to give Franklin's assets to family members, although her estate has been in turmoil since her passing.

One of her sons, Kecalf Franklin, claims she wanted him to serve as representative of the estate in the 2014 will, but Sabrina Owens, an administrator at the University of Michigan, has been serving as personal representative of the estate. "She remains neutral and wishes that all parties involved make wise choices on behalf of their mother, her rich legacy, the family and the Aretha Franklin estate," she asserted in a statement. And experts have been brought in to ascertain and appraise the late singer's assets, as the IRS continues its audit of her tax returns after claiming she owed at least $6 million last year.

The Detroit Free Press obtained copies of the wills, which were filed with the court this week by Franklin's longtime attorney, David Bennett. The 2014 will, which purports to supersede the previous two, sets aside most of her estate (including song copyrights, her stake in the pending MGM film about her life, gold records, and awards) would go evenly to her four sons, while funds from several bank accounts were to be "split evenly" among various family members, including nieces and a cousin. She also asked that her "papers" be given to colleges or auctioned, and her gowns be auctioned by Sotheby's or donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

... Is There a Way?

But will any of that happen? As a general matter, handwritten or "holographic" wills are valid, so long as they are signed by the testator (Franklin, in this case) and two "disinterested" witnesses, i.e., people who would not personally benefit under the will. And any will, handwritten or otherwise must meet other criteria, some of which may be state specific. For instance, under Michigan wills laws, handwritten wills don't require witnesses, and are valid if they are dated, the testator's signature appears at end of will, and the material provisions are in testator's handwriting. (Franklin passed from pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors in her Detroit home last year.)

According to the AP, Bennett is unsure whether any of the wills are legally enforceable, and a statement from Franklin's estate said two of her sons object to the wills. A hearing is scheduled for June 12, to determine their validity.

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