At first, the family of Aretha Franklin believed that the division of her estate after her death in 2018 would be a simple task: Without a known will, the assets of the celebrated singer would be equally distributed among her four sons.
But months after Franklin’s funeral, a family member found documents scrawled by hand and outlining her wishes — one tucked under a sofa cushion in her home in suburban Detroit, another in a locked cabinet — plunging the estate into uncertainty.
In the four years since, Franklin’s sons have fought in a Michigan probate court over which of the conflicting documents should take precedence. On Monday, the matter goes to trial, with the exact distribution of Franklin’s remaining wealth, property and music rights at stake.
“I think they all wish this had been resolved a week after she passed away,” said Craig A. Smith, a lawyer for Edward Franklin, the singer’s second-oldest son. “But they don’t blame anyone – it is what it is.”
At issue in the trial is which document best reflects Franklin’s wishes before she died, at the age of 76, from pancreatic cancer.
Two of her sons, Edward and Kecalf Franklin, claim that the document found in a spiral notebook under the sofa cushions, which is dated March 2014 and quite favorable to Kecalf, should be considered primary. Another son, Ted White Jr., claims that the articles found in the cabinet, dated June 2010, should take priority.
The jury could also decide that neither document is a legitimate will, returning to an equal division of the singer’s estate among her children, based on Michigan law. There is also a possible combined solution in which items from both documents would be considered.
Franklin’s eldest son, Clarence Franklin, who has mental illness and is under legal guardianship, has long been a player in the legal jockeying, as the 2014 will would appear to make him inherit significantly less than his brothers. But in recent weeks, his representatives have reached a settlement for an undisclosed percentage of the estate. As a result, they will not choose a side in the lawsuit, said Joseph Buttiglieri, an attorney for Clarence Franklin’s guardian.
A pioneering musician hailed as the Queen of Soul, Franklin won 18 Grammy Awards, had more than 100 singles on the Billboard charts, and left behind the trappings of a star: four homes, several cars, furs, jewelry and gold records. The total estate was valued at about $18 million after she died, Mr. Smith said, although another appraisal suggested the figure might be lower.
But Franklin, who was known to be intensely private about her finances, also left a significant tax liability. In 2021, her estate reached an agreement with the Internal Revenue Service to pay approximately $8 million in federal income taxes, setting aside a portion of any new revenue from music royalties or projects such as the recent Hollywood biopic starring Jennifer Hudson.
At the heart of the lawsuit are more than a dozen pages of Franklin’s scribbled wishes, filled with crossed out words and insertions. The process of interpreting a deceased person’s intentions from the lines of a handwritten document can be a confusing, contentious process, which made for a gripping story line in the HBO series “Success.” In the final season of the show, the heirs of the family patriarch struggled to survive penciled additions to his last wishes that were found locked in a safe.
The effort to determine Franklin’s true wishes turned up three voicemails, recorded months before the singer died, in which she discussed another will she was preparing with an estate attorney, Henry Grix.
In the messages, which were played in court earlier this year, Franklin said she had already decided some details about her estate, including that she wanted her pianos to be auctioned at Sotheby’s, but she noted she was leaving other decisions to be made. for future meeting at the law office.
Ted White Jr., whose father was Franklin’s manager and first husband, asked the court to favor documents that were drafted by Mr. Grix, an experienced estate planning attorney, in the final three years of the singer’s life, arguing that it was the most recent expression of her wishes. But the judge overseeing the case, Jennifer S. Callaghan, excluded the documents from consideration in the trial, citing testimony from Mr. Grix claiming that he was left with the impression that Franklin “had not made up his mind” about the will. .
“It is clear to this court,” Judge Callaghan wrote in a May decision, “that the attorney who was retained to personally memorialize the Decedent’s estate plan did not believe that the Decedent had yet reached a final, complete plan.”
That leaves two documents for the six-person jury to consider.
In the 2014 document, three of Franklin’s sons—excluding Clarence—would receive equal shares of their mother’s music royalty, but the distribution of her personal property would be weighted toward Kecalf. According to the document, Kecalf would receive two out of four homes and the singer’s cars, the number of which is not specified.
In court documents, a lawyer for Kecalf Franklin argued that the 2014 document should be considered a legal will because it is Franklin’s most recent handwritten document outlining her plans. (There is a dispute over whether the singer officially signed the document. One side says a smiley face paired with “Franklin” represents her signature on the document’s final page; the other disagreed.)
Mr. Smith said that while his client, Edward Franklin, would benefit more financially if the wills were deemed invalid, his client supports the 2014 document because he believes “that’s what Aretha wanted.”
Firmly opposed to the 2014 will is Mr. White, whose lawyer, Kurt A. Olson, wrote in court documents: “If this document was intended to be a will, it would be more careful than putting it in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion. “
As evidence in support of the 2010 document, which specifies weekly and monthly allowances for the four sons, Mr. Olson pointed to the fact that it was notarized and that Franklin signed every page.
Mr. White has not yet signed the settlement reached over the portion of Clarence Franklin’s estate, and it will ultimately be subject to the judge’s approval.
Witnesses in the trial, which is expected to last less than a week in Oakland County Probate Court in Pontiac, Mich., are likely to include some of Franklin’s sons; the person who notarized the 2010 document; handwriting expert; and the singer’s niece, Sabrina Owens, who discovered the potential wills in 2019. Ms. Owens initially served as Franklin’s personal representative — similar to the role of executor — until strife within the family prompted her resignation.
Nicholas E. Papasifakis, a Michigan estate attorney, currently serves as Franklin’s personal representative and does not take sides in the dispute between the heirs.
After the trial is over and the estate has been settled, there will still be issues that will require cooperation within the broken family. Biographies or tribute concerts would require a universal agreement, unless the heirs appointed a business manager to manage such decisions, said Mr. Smith, the lawyer representing Edward Franklin.
“We hope everyone gets along a little better after this is resolved,” he said.