Aretha Franklin’s will turned up in an odd place. Do your loved ones know where yours is?

Aretha Franklin did not leave a formal will behind when she died at the age of 76 in 2018.

And when one of her nieces found two different handwritten documents in a 2019 search of her home, the fighting over her estate intensified. In the years since, her sons have turned against each other in the battle for their mum’s money.

But a jury’s decision that one of the handwritten documents is a valid Michigan will marks a critical breakthrough that means victory for two of her four sons, Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin.

Their lawyers have long argued that papers dated 2014 should override the 2010 will that was discovered in a locked cabinet at the singer’s home around the same time.

After a brief trial, the Oakland County jury took less than an hour to make their decision this week.

“I’m very, very happy. I just wanted my mother’s wishes to be adhered to,” Kecalf Franklin told media. “We just want to exhale right now. It’s been a long five years for my family, my children.”

In their closing arguments, the lawyers for two of Franklin’s sons said there was nothing legally significant about locating the handwritten papers in a notebook found in her couch.

It’s “inconsequential … You can take your will and leave it on the kitchen counter. It’s still your will”, Charles McKelvie told the jury.

But another son, Ted White II, who preferred the instructions left in the 2010 will, was not as pleased.

His lawyer argued that the more formal version of the will, kept under lock and key, was more significant than scribbled papers found stuffed in a couch.

In the interim, those responsible for managing the Queen of Soul’s estate have been busily paying bills, settling millions of dollars in tax debts and generating millions more in music royalties and other intellectual property agreements.

Under the handwritten 2014 will found in the couch, Kecalf Franklin and grandchildren would get his mother’s main home in Bloomfield Hills. At the time of her death, the property was valued at $US1.1 million ($1.65 million) but is worth much more today.

The older will directed that both Kecalf, 53, and Edward Franklin, 64 “must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” to benefit from the estate. That provision was not in the 2014 version.

Mr White, played guitar with his mother and testified against the 2014 will by telling the court that Aretha Franklin would typically get her important documents done “conventionally and legally” with the support of a lawyer.

Mr White’s attorney described the 2014 document as “merely a draft” and maintains that the 2010 note is signed and notarised. 

But with the jury’s finding deeming the 2014 version legal, it’s a powerful reminder that although wills should ideally be created with some clarity – making it clear to loved ones where to find the current version is one of the most important things to think about when writing and preparing your will.

How to prepare your will

A well-written and current will helps ensure:

  • your loved ones are financially provided for when you die
  • care for any dependents is clearly outlined
  • your assets are given to who you choose
  • the people managing your estate know the way you want things done
  • your estate can be settled quickly – without wasting money on legal fights.

Although you can register it, or leave it in the care of your lawyer, there is no legal requirement or need to give it to a lawyer or anyone official to hold onto. Keeping it in a safe place at home, or even, it seems, behind a couch cushion, is okay too – but the main thing is that everyone important to you knows where it is and that it is, indeed, your last will and testament.

Do you have your will legally lodged and registered? Or is it somewhere safe at home? Are there people in your family you plan to exclude or to whom you want to give specific instructions? Share your stories in the comment below.

Read more: Being an executor: What’s involved?

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
Claire is an accomplished journalist who has written for leading magazines and newspapers, such as The Sunday Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Women's Weekly, Marie Claire, Rolling Stone, Australian House & Garden, GQ, The Australian, Herald Sun, The Weekly Review, and The Independent on Sunday (UK).
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