Aretha Franklin: The Queen Next Door

The “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin, died in her Detroit home, August 16th, 2018.  She was 76 and had been battling pancreatic cancer.  The world of music had lost an iconic voice.  She was truly one of the greats, receiving many accolades and honors throughout her career and the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Franklin was survived by her four sons, Clarence, Edward, Teddy, and Kecalf.

Franklin's estate was estimated to be worth around $80 Million.  When she died, it was initially thought that she did not leave a will.  Under intestate law in Michigan, her assets were to be divided equally among her sons, and they agreed to designate Sabrina Owens, their cousin and Franklin’s niece, as the estate executor.

However, several months after her death, as Sabrina was clearing out the late singer’s home, she found three different handwritten wills.  Two of them were dated 2010.  The third was dated 2014 and was found in a spiral notebook, stuffed under some sofa cushions. All contained conflicting instructions.

Both the 2010 wills instructed regular allowances for all four of her sons and granted each of them specific assets. Sabrina and Teddy are named as executors.  The 2014 will specified her assets be divided in equal shares between her three youngest sons.  The decision as to how much money would be given to their older brother Clarence is left up to his three brothers.  Presumably, this decision was due to the fact that Clarence has special needs, and has lived in a group home near Detroit for decades.  

The 2014 will also named Sabrina, Teddy, and Kecalf as executors, but Sabrina and Teddy’s names were crossed out.  Due to this, Kecalf filed in court to be appointed as the estate’s executor.  Teddy and the attorney for Clarence fought against this, stating that Kecalf lacked the financial knowledge or ability to act as executor.  The court battle between the brothers forced Sabrina to make the decision to resign as executor, stating that Aretha would not have wanted a family feud.  The Probate Court appointed Reginald Turner, a Detroit attorney and longtime friend of Aretha’s, as temporary personal representative for the estate.

To add fuel to the fire, a fourth will then appeared. The document was stamped as “draft” and unsigned. As it was created in 2018 it is the most recent version of her will. This will would create a trust to benefit Clarence, split the remaining assets equally between her three other sons, and leave specific assets to her other relatives. It also stipulates that the three youngest sons should serve as the estate’s representatives, and as such, they would have the authority to make determinations about the late singer’s music rights, name, and likeness.

Teddy asked the court to recognize this fourth will and his mother's accompanying notes as her official last will and testament. His petition cites that though the documents were unsigned, Michigan law allows the deceased's “intent to be recognized even if the documents are defective in execution.”  A trial date was set for August 2021 to establish whether any of the four documents could formally stand as Franklin’s will.  A ruling is expected in January.

In the meantime, a deal was tentatively reached between the IRS and the Franklin estate to pay $7.8 Million in federal income taxes.  Under the agreement, the estate will set aside 45 percent of all revenue it receives from now on to pay off the tax liability that Franklin accrued from 2010-17.

The deal also lays out plans for ongoing taxes, and payments to Franklin’s heirs. 40 percent of the estate’s revenues will be held in escrow and will cover state and federal taxes owed by the estate, as well as estimated taxes owed by heirs.

The remaining 15 percent of the revenues will be used to cover the estate’s administration costs. Any income beyond that point will be paid out in equal amounts to Franklin’s sons.  However, the deal is yet to be approved.  If approved, it would allow for regular income to Franklin's heirs.  A plan for the distribution of the assets remains a matter of dispute.

This is a perfect example of how destructive unorganized estate planning can be. Estate disputes can so easily be avoided through timely and thorough planning.  The Law Offices of DuPont and Blumenstiel have been advising our clients, new and old, about their best estate and trust planning options for over twenty years.  If you are starting your estate planning journey, or want to review your current plans, call us at (614) 389-9711 or visit the website to schedule an appointment.


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