MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The lengthy, expensive trial over soul singer Aretha Franklin’s will is a cautionary tale for people who want to ensure their wishes are carried out after death — and for their families.
A Michigan jury ruled Tuesday that a handwritten document from Franklin found in her bank after her death in 2018 was a valid will. It was a critical turn in a dispute that has pitted her sons against each other. And it ended in a victory for Kecalf and Edward Franklin, whose lawyers had argued that 2014 papers should take precedence over a 2010 will discovered in a locked closet at the Queen of Soul’s suburban Detroit home.
Legal experts say the fight could have been avoided if Franklin had had a formal will drawn up by an experienced attorney who could have ensured it would specify what should happen to her money, property and other assets — and that it would stand. hold in court. And they say that lesson applies to other families as well. Here’s a look at some of the issues involved:
DO I NEED A TESTAMENT?
Not necessarily, but real estate lawyers highly recommend them for most people to ensure that their wishes are carried out and to avoid any quarrels between their loved ones.
“Children fighting after mom and dad die is the oldest thing in the world,” said Patrick Simasko, who teaches elder law at Michigan State University law school and follows the Franklin case. That’s the last thing mom and dad want. That’s the takeaway. Prepare your estate plan so the children don’t get into a fight after you die.
Real estate attorneys often recommend that their clients establish revocable trusts, which allow the estate to be held out of court. That can make the process much cheaper, but the laws vary from state to state.
CAN I DO IT MYSELF?
You can, but Franklin put her family through five years of costly lawsuits that could have been avoided. Franklin was working with an attorney on a formal will from 2016-18, but nothing had been finalized at the time of her death.
“There were a lot of open questions and we never resolved those open questions,” attorney Henry Grix testified during the long-running lawsuit. “She was quite ill and maybe not really able to achieve her ultimate intentions.”
Do-it-yourself software like the popular Quicken WillMaker can cost as little as $99, but those programs can’t tailor a will to a family’s unique circumstances and foresee all possible pitfalls like a good lawyer could.
“People are pennywise and pound-foolish sometimes, even people with decent amounts of money,” said Josh Rubenstein, a New York attorney who heads the private wealth division of the nationwide law firm of Cats. “But if you have enough money to leave to someone, you have enough money to hire a lawyer and not do it yourself.”
And while Michigan accepts handwritten wills like Franklin’s, many states don’t.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN SOMEONE DEAD WITHOUT A WILL?
Most states have laws governing how an estate should be divided when a person dies “intestate,” meaning without a will, as the vast majority of Americans do, Rubenstein said. But those laws only provide standard formulas for who gets what, and they vary from state to state.
Those formulas may not ensure that money, property, and assets are distributed to your next of kin the way you want them to be, nor do they guarantee who will be named the executor.
An example of this is how rock superstar Prince died in 2016 without a will. Minnesota law required his estate to be divided equally among his six surviving siblings, who have since had many disagreements. The court had to appoint an executor. Lawyers and the trust office appointed by the court to manage the estate raised millions of dollars that could otherwise have gone to the heirs.
More than seven years after Prince’s death, the case is only now being finalized. It wasn’t until last year that all parties, including the IRS, agreed that Prince’s estate was worth $156.4 million. All assets have been distributed except about $1.4 million in tax refunds to come, court documents show.
Associated Press reporter Ed White contributed to this story from Pontiac, Michigan.