Holographic Wills and The Aretha Franklin Estate Fiasco

Posted on May 27, 2019

Known across the globe as the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin had a storied career spanning more than six decades.  During that time, Franklin landed 112 singles on the Billboard charts, more than any other female performer in history.  Many of those songs, like “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think,” have forever become part of American musical canon. 

Will ContestWhen Franklin died in 2018, her six-hour funeral service was broadcast live on national television and featured remembrances and performances from friends and family—including numerous celebrities, musicians, and a former President of the United States.  

In private, however, Franklin’s family members encountered a serious issue.  It appeared that Franklin had died without leaving a will.  Because Franklin was not married at the time of her death, therefore, her property would pass evenly to her four sons under the law of Michigan, where she lived, just as it would here in Virginia.  While that sounds straightforward enough, the lack of a clear estate plan can—and often does—lead to in-fighting amongst relatives, difficulties for the administrator of the estate in identifying and locating the decedent’s property, problems with assets that cannot be easily divided between heirs, and other challenges.  That is especially true in the case of a celebrity like Franklin, whose sizeable estate included songwriting credits, life rights, and other intangible assets that are difficult to value.

Unfortunately, Franklin’s estate has now traded that vexing problem for another. On May 3, Franklin’s niece found three handwritten documents in Franklin’s home—one in a locked cabinet and two under couch cushions.  The documents, dated between 2010 and 2014, seem to provide instructions for the disposition of Franklin’s property after her death.  While the documents found were not witnessed or notarized, they may satisfy the requirements for “holographic” wills under Michigan law because they appear to be in Franklin’s handwriting, contain her signature, and are dated.  Nevertheless, portions of the documents are difficult to read, may contain various ambiguities, and include tangents that seem unrelated to the disposition of Franklin’s property.  Early indications are that Franklin’s sons are divided on the validity of the handwritten documents.  A suit has already been filed asking the court to determine if the documents are valid.  Even if it rules that they are, additional litigation over their meaning is likely.

Like Michigan, Virginia recognizes the validity of holographic wills.  For a holographic will to be admitted to probate in Virginia, two disinterested witnesses must prove that it is entirely in the testator’s own handwriting and signed by the testator.  While Virginia law allows holographic wills, it is always best to avoid problems up front by hiring a lawyer to advise you about your estate plan and prepare the necessary documents to carry it out in accordance with your wishes.

However, not everyone takes those steps.  Sometimes, issues with a loved one’s estate plan are not discovered until after their passing.  As Aretha Franklin’s case illustrates, those issues can lead to disputes among family members over what the decedent intended and whether the personal representative of the estate is properly carrying out the decedent’s wishes. 

Here at The Mottley Law Firm, we do not prepare wills or trusts.  We represent executors, administrators, trustees, family members, beneficiaries, and other interested parties in court when a dispute arises involving the proper interpretation and implementation of a decedent’s estate plan.  We have significant experience in all phases of estate and trust litigation, including will contests, trust disputes, actions arising from powers of attorney, and litigation involving premarital agreements.  If you have encountered any type of issue involving an estate or trust, please call The Mottley Law Firm at (804) 930-1022 to discuss the situation with one of our attorneys today.

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