When it comes to your estate plan, think! Don’t do what Aretha Franklin did and leave your heirs (or potential heirs) battling it out in court over handwritten wills. After your passing, you want your loved ones united together, not saying a little prayer in court that a judge will side with each of them. If you want beneficiaries to respect your wishes, you must create a legally sound estate plan.

Musical puns aside, the Franklin case highlights one of the most frequent causes of legal battles and family strife after a death: Handwritten wills can cause considerable confusion and conflict, and the mistake often leaves hopeful heirs feeling like a chain of fools in the courtroom.

Five years after the matriarch’s death, three of her four sons have proceeded to court in order to determine who inherits a multi-million-dollar home and controls the singer’s estate – along with the massive royalties associated with her life’s work.

The confusion stemmed from two different handwritten wills – one created in 2010 and the other in 2014. Ted White II believed that the 2010 document, which names him and Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens, as executors, accurately reflected his mother’s wishes. Meanwhile, Kecalf and Edward Franklin favored the 2014 version, which replaced White with Kecalf Franklin as heir to the primary real estate property under dispute.

Normally, under Michigan state law, the 2014 document would be favored in court due to the fact that it came later, and Kecalf Franklin would be named executor. But attorneys for White argued that the 2010 document was the only one notarized and, therefore, should be favored by the judge. Whether notarized or not, handwritten wills are admissible in Michigan’s probate court system, provided they are in the decedent’s handwriting and are dated and signed.

To make matters worse, the IRS also laid claim to part of the estate, citing unpaid taxes. Since 2020, the agency has collected $8.1 million, and the tax issue took legal precedence over the sons’ dispute.

The case finally went to trial in November 2023, and the presiding judge ruled that the 2014 handwritten will accurately reflected the late singer’s true wishes – even though it was created without an estate planning attorney’s guidance and was never notarized. Kecalf Franklin was granted the primary real estate property, and all sons will share royalties from the estate’s ongoing earnings. The size of the estate itself was reduced by over $900,000 in legal fees, making another case for thorough and proper estate planning.

Hopefully, with the dispute now behind them, the Franklin family can heal their rift and find a deeper love for one another. For the rest of us, the case serves as a lesson and a warning: If you want to prevent family strife after your death, get one step ahead and meet with an estate planning attorney. Call Shoup Legal to schedule an appointment with us, and we’ll help you plan for the future of your estate.