Celebrity Spotlight: Will the Court R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha Franklin’s Handwritten Wishes?

June 2019

After Aretha Franklin passed away in August 2018, it was widely reported that she was believed to have died without creating a Will. In fact, her niece, Sabrina Garett Owens, filed a Petition to probate Aretha’s estate intestate and was appointed the Personal Representative on August 31, 2018.

For those of you who don’t know, let’s do a quick overview of the terms mentioned above.  Intestate means the state statutes will control the distribution of your estate. The Personal Representative can also be called an executor and this person’s duties include marshaling the assets and securing the property to be accounted for, inventoried, appraised, and ultimately sold or distributed.

In Aretha’s estate, the state statues would distribute her estate equally to all of her children a route that all children appeared to agree on, and as mentioned above Sabrina was appointed the Personal Representative of her estate. However, while Sabrina was performing her duties, she came across three very interesting pieces of paper.

After discovering a key to a locked cabinet, Sabrina located two handwritten documents that appeared to be Wills dated June 21, 2010, and October 20, 2010. During the same search, she also located a notebook under a couch cushion in the living room which appeared to contain another handwritten Will dated March 31, 2014. She circulated the above “Wills” to the interested parties and filed with the Court a Petition asking for guidance. In her Petition, Owens requests to remain the Personal Representative (contrary to one of the handwritten requests) and for the Court to rule on whether the documents meet the standard to be considered a valid Holographic Will under MCL 700.2502. Additionally, if they do meet the standards, Sabrina inquired if the Court can assist her in insufficiently determining the dispositive terms of the instruments. The Court set a hearing on June 12 and two children (not named publicly) have already stated they oppose the admission of the documents as a valid Will.

So what does this mean? Currently, it appears Aretha’s children are not in agreement, Sabrina wishes to remain neutral, the Court will review the submission on June 17th, and experts are all over the board. There is one thing most would agree on and that is the fact that the cost of administering Aretha’s estate just increased significantly. Not only does this cause additional legal actions, but it also gives rise to the need for the Personal Representative to do a diligent search of all of Aretha’s belongings, even under the cushions, for other potential holographic Wills. If Aretha had been a Minnesota resident, the issue may have resolved itself as Minnesota Law requires that a Will be written, dated, signed, and witnessed by two individuals, a test that all three of the “Wills” failed.

No matter the outcome,
Aretha is reminding us all that in order for your wishes to be R-E-S-P-E-C-T-ed,
it is important to consult an attorney and safeguard your original Will.

Click here to review the handwritten Wills from the court submission.

This post was written by Nicole Flaherty, an attorney in our Trust & Estates practice group. Her previous post “Celebrity Spotlight: Aretha Franklin Dies Without an Estate Plan” can be read here.