Will Aretha Franklin’s Wishes Get the R-E-S-P-E-C-T They Deserve?

Aretha Franklin reportedly did not have a Will or Trust at the time of death. 

Aretha Franklin’s final wishes may not get the respect they deserve.  It was reported in the news that legendary singer, Aretha Franklin, did not have a will or trust at the time of her passing.  According to the Detroit Free Press, Franklin’s four children – Clarence, Edward, Ted, and Kecalf – filed a document listing themselves as interested parties in her estate.  Her reported assets of $80 million will now need to pass through Michigan probate before her children can gain access to their inheritance.  The Queen of Soul died “intestate”, meaning she died without a will. Los Angeles attorney Don Wilson, who represented Franklin for nearly three decades, said he constantly asked her to put her assets into a trust, but she never got around to it.

Aretha Franklin may have now unwittingly set her family up for a public, and perhaps, contentious legal process to account and distribute her assets.  Dying intestate, or without a will or trust, makes the probate process much more difficult and could lead to family infighting as her final wishes were not properly documented.  Her assets will now be tied up in probate court to deal with any property and accounts that were held solely in her name.  Since probate is a state court proceeding, all information and filings are public record.  Unfortunately for the Franklin family, any nosey person can go into the probate court and see what assets she had.  And sadly, distribution of her many prized possessions will be passed according to the intestate laws of Michigan, not according to Franklin’s own wishes.

How could Franklin have avoided this potential mess? 

A knowledgeable estate planning attorney could have helped walk Ms. Franklin through the important decisions and tradeoffs.  Questions such as how Franklin’s estate should handle the offers of those wanting to create movies, books, and documentaries about her life; or how should her songs be used, or not used, for commercial purposes will undoubtedly be raised. These potential issues could have been addressed prior to Franklin’s death to be sure her wishes and goals were met.  Other issues that could have been addressed include the use of her likeness or image, including onstage holograms as was famously done by Michael Jackson’s estate in the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.  Would this be the way she would want to be remembered?  Would Franklin have wanted to remember important charities with a final bequest (donation)? She may have wanted to remember the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan where her father, C. L. Franklin, was minister and where Aretha sang gospel as a child.

Overlaying these important decisions in this particular case is that Aretha Franklin had children from different relationships.  With so much at stake and many important decisions ahead for her blended family, any disagreements will be played out in the public.  Had Ms. Franklin had an attorney craft a will and trust to properly document her goals for her estate’s division and distribution, then the chances of her wishes being followed would have increased dramatically, any public family disharmony would have been greatly reduced, and her estate could have been settled quickly and privately.