Celebrity Estate Dispute

Known as the Queen of Soul with hits such as ‘Think’, ‘I Say a Little Prayer’, and ‘Respect’, Aretha Franklin sadly passed away in 2018 at the age of 76, and while her death was over 5 years ago, the battle for her estate continues in the USA.

History of the Dispute

During her lifetime, Aretha prepared two separate handwritten Wills. The first Will was written sometime in 2010 while the second Will was written in 2014.  The 2014 Will was hidden in Aretha’s couch and subsequently found after her death, both inscribing some alterations as to which of her sons would inherit certain aspects of her estate.

The 2010 Will lists Aretha’s niece, Owens, and her son, White, as co-executors and says Kecalf and Edward Franklin, Aretha’s other sons, “must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” to receive a benefit from the estate.

The 2014 Will crossed out White’s name as executor and has Kecalf Franklin in his place. There was no mention of business classes. Kecalf Franklin and the grandchildren would get his mother’s main home in Bloomfield Hills, which was valued at $1.1 million when she died but is worth much more today.

Arguments put forward by Kecalf and Edward included that the 2014 Will out-dated the 2010 Will. On the contrary, it was argued that the 2014 Will is merely a draft, not being official and legal in nature particularly due to it being difficult to decipher through its handwriting.

Franklin’s executor who helped oversee Franklin’s estate was unable to determine which Will was deemed valid during the probate process meaning the matter went to trial.

It was found that the 2014 Will was established to be a valid Will by a jury, ending a long dispute between Franklin’s children.

What would have happened if the dispute was considered by the Australian Courts?

Usually, the Will with the most recent date that was validly written and executed is a person’s last Will and testament. This would dictate how the estate is divided. However, if you find a previous Will and there is a reason to suspect or contend that the latest-dated Will was not created validly, the penultimate valid Will may be binding.

Testamentary intention is another important factor that a court will consider when determining the validity of a Will, because it distinguishes the Will as being written with the intention of being the last Will and testament. It is usually expressed in a strong opening statement, identifying the testator and their intention to make the Will and revoke all former Wills.

More importantly, the Court will consider whether the document itself is capable to show it is intended to be a Will. The Court has recognised Wills deemed valid that contain a convincing testamentary intention. Including words such as ‘My Will’, could suggest you, as a testator, are aware of your assets with the intention of passing them on.

How we can learn from this case

In all circumstances, you should take caution when writing a Will to ensure that it is prepared correctly. Its contents need to be updated, particularly as to whether the Will revokes all those made previously. The last thing you would want to do is write multiple Wills, or worse, forget about a Will, only to find your children in Court, like Aretha Franklin’s sons, navigating a sea of uncertainty to determine which Will is legal and enforceable.

The Takeaway

Courts will R-E-S-P-E-C-T the testamentary intention of a testator but only if a Will is validly written to execute as a person’s last will and testament and shows the person intends to revoke all former wills that they might have had, amongst other things.