Aretha Franklin's Handwritten Will Found in Sofa Ruled Valid in Court After Family Dispute

A jury has found that a will that was handwritten by Aretha Franklin and found stuffed in her couch after her 2018 death is valid in her home state of Michigan.

via Mail Online:

Two handwritten wills, one written in 2010 and another in 2014, became the center of a years-long battle over Franklin’s $6million estate turning her sons against one another.

The decision comes as a win for Franklin’s sons Kecalf and Edward who argued that the papers found in the couch dated 2014 should override a 2010 will. 

The 2010 will was discovered at the same time in a locked cabinet – her other son, Ted White II, aka Teddy Richards, believes it to be the rightful will.

The main difference between the two documents is who Franklin designated as her executors – White and Franklin’s niece in the 2010 document and Kecalf and Edward in the 2014 one. 

The jury is slated to hear closing arguments at the brief trial later Tuesday.

Franklin did not leave behind a formal, typewritten will when she died five years ago at age 76. 

But both documents, with scribbles and hard-to-decipher passages, suddenly emerged in 2019 – when a niece scoured the home for records. 

Franklin’s estate managers have been paying bills, settling millions in tax debts and generating income through music royalties and other intellectual property. The will dispute, however, has been unfinished business.

There are differences between the 2010 and 2014 versions although they both appear to indicate that Franklin’s four sons would share income from music and copyrights.

Under the 2014 will, Kecalf and grandchildren would get his mother’s main home in Bloomfield Hills – valued at $1.1 million when she died but which is worth much more today 

The 2010 will, however, said Kecalf and Edward ‘must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree’ to benefit from the estate – a provision that was not in the 2014 version.

Ted, who played guitar with Franklin, testified against the 2014 will, and said his mother would typically get important documents done ‘conventionally and legally’ with the assistance of an attorney.

Franklin was a global star for decades, known especially for hits like ‘Think,’ ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ and ‘Respect.’

The unusual trial – to determine which of the two handwritten wills is hoped to be a  guide on how Franklin’s estate will be handled – started on July 3.

Pat Simasko, who specializes in wills and estates and teaches elder law at Michigan State University College of Law, said he’s not surprised that the will was left unsettled.

‘Does it surprise me that someone passed away before they had their ducks in a row? The answer is never,’ he said.

‘This can be settled any time, on the steps, halfway through trial and hopefully it will be. Going to a jury trial is a war.’

It was immediately known that Franklin had died without a will, which meant her four sons likely would share assets worth millions, including real estate in suburban Detroit, furs, gowns, jewelry and future royalties from her works. 

A niece, Sabrina Owens, agreed to be personal representative or executor.

‘My advice? Go slow, be careful and be smart,’ Franklin’s friend, businessman Ron Moten, told her sons at the funeral.

Months later, in spring 2019, the estate was turned upside down. 

Owens reported that a handwritten will dated 2010 was found in a cabinet and another handwritten will, dated 2014, was discovered inside a notebook under cushions in a couch at Franklin’s home.

The eldest son, Clarence, according to court papers has been diagnosed with a mental illness and lives with assistance in a group home outside of Detroit. 

In one of her wills, his mother instructed her other sons to check in on Clarence weekly and ‘oversee his needs’. In this 2014 will, he is not even listed as a beneficiary. 

Aretha Franklin wrote in 2014 that her gowns could be auctioned or go to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. 

She indicated in both papers that oldest son, Clarence, who lives under a guardianship, must be regularly supported.

‘Two inconsistent wills cannot both be admitted to probate. In such cases the most recent will revokes the previous will,’ Charles McKelvie, a lawyer for Kecalf Franklin, said in a court filing in favor of the 2014 document.

But White’s attorney, Kurt Olson, said the 2010 will was notarized and signed, while the later version ‘is merely a draft.’

‘If this document were intended to be a will there would have been more care than putting it in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion,’ Olson said.

Simasko, the law instructor, said final wishes can be fulfilled in Michigan through an informal will.

‘If you’re sitting there on a Sunday afternoon and you start handwriting your own wishes, the law allows it as long as the rules are followed: It’s in your handwriting, it’s dated and it’s signed,’ he said.

For five years, Franklin’s estate has been handled at different times by three executors. Owens quit in 2020, citing a ‘rift’ among the sons.

She was succeeded by Reginald Turner, a local lawyer who also served as president of the American Bar Association. 

His last accounting in March showed the estate had income of $3.9 million during the previous 12-month period and a similar amount of spending, including more than $900,000 in legal fees to various firms.

Overall assets were pegged at $4.1 million, mostly cash and real estate, though Franklin’s creative works and intellectual property were undervalued with just a nominal $1 figure.

The estate since 2020 has paid at least $8.1 million to the Internal Revenue Service, which had a claim for taxes after the singer’s death, court filings show.

‘The IRS claims took priority. The estate wasn’t going anywhere until the IRS got paid off,’ Smith said.

Franklin passed away at 9.50am on Aug 16 2018 – surrounded by family and friends at her home in Detroit following a battle with advanced pancreatic cancer.  

‘In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family,’ a statement from her family read at the time.

‘We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. 

‘We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.’

Soon after news of her death celebrities took to social media to mourn the loss of the Queen of Soul. 

Barack and Michelle Obama, who considered Franklin a close friend, released a joint statement, saying they could ‘feel our history’ in Franklin’s voice when she sang.

‘America has no royalty. But we do have a chance to earn something more enduring. Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, Aretha Franklin grew up performing gospel songs in her father’s congregation. For more than six decades since, every time she sang, we were graced with a glimpse of the divine,’ the Obamas wrote.

‘Through her compassion and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.

‘Aretha may have passed on to a better place, but the gift of her music remains to inspire us all. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace. Michelle and I send our prayers and warmest sympathies to her family and those moved by her song.’ 

‘She worked for me on numerous occasions. She was terrific – Aretha Franklin – on her passing,’ Trump said, adding that she brought joy to millions. ‘She was given a great gift from God – her voice, and she used it well. People loved Aretha. She was a special woman. So just want to pass on my warmest best wishes and sympathies to her family.’

Clive Davis, the music mogul who brought her to Arista Records and helped revive her career in the 1980s, said he was ‘devastated’ by her death.

‘She was truly one of a kind. She was more than the Queen of Soul. She was a national treasure to be cherished by every generation throughout the world,’ he said. ‘Apart from our long professional relationship, Aretha was my friend. Her loss is deeply profound and my heart is full of sadness.’

Smokey Robinson, who grew up with her in Detroit, said: ‘This morning my longest friend in this world went home to be with our father. I will miss her so much but I know she’s at peace.’ 

Franklin’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star was quickly turned into a makeshift memorial surrounded by floral tributes and a crown after news of her death broke.  

Fans also flocked to concert venues across the country where Franklin had previously played, including New York’s Apollo Theater, to leave flowers and condolence messages. 

Residents in her hometown of Detroit – where two streets bear her name – went to the New Bethel Baptist Church where Franklin first forged her career.

Floral tributes also started to pile up outside the home where Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee.

Only Aretha would leave behind a handwritten will — in a sofa.

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