Aretha Franklin’s Estate Plan and the Validity of Handwritten Wills

Elderly couple reviewing legal documents

In July 2023, a jury rendered a verdict in the nearly five-year legal battle over Aretha Franklin’s estate by concluding that the handwritten 2014 document found under a couch cushion in her home was a valid will. Because it was determined to be a valid will, it superseded a 2010 will, also handwritten. That being said, the judge still has to decide what if any portions of the 2010 will are still valid.

While the jury’s verdict concluded the legal conflict over the estate, it’s more difficult to say whether it eased any tensions between family members. Two of Franklin’s sons, Kecalf and Edward, argued in favor of the 2014 document. A third son, Ted White Jr., favored the 2010 will, which was signed on each page by Franklin and notarized, but not signed by two witnesses (Franklin’s eldest son, Clarence, has unspecified special needs.)

The litigation over Aretha Franklin’s estate is interesting to most people because of her fame and wealth, but also because of the mystery attached: why would someone with so much wealth, a complicated estate, and access to the best lawyers, leave such a confusing estate plan and not execute estate planning prepared by attorneys?

Can a Will Be Handwritten?

Let’s answer the simplest question first: are handwritten wills legal in Michigan? They can be if certain requirements are met. A handwritten will, also called a “holographic will,” can be valid as long as it is dated, signed by the person making it (the testator), and the material portions of the will are in the testator’s handwriting. It must also be clear that the testator intended the document to serve as his or her will.

In Franklin’s case, the 2014 document was dated and handwritten on ordinary notebook paper. It was signed with the singer’s name, which included a smiley face. There were extraneous comments and notations in the margins, but the jury concluded that based on all the facts, the document met Michigan’s requirements for a holographic will.

Why Didn’t Aretha Franklin Have a Lawyer Prepare Her Will?

Aretha Franklin knew that she was seriously ill with pancreatic cancer. She had a large estate and loved ones she wanted to leave her assets to. And as the closest thing Detroit had to royalty, the Queen of Soul could have had the best estate planning attorneys in Detroit come to her doorstep. With all of that being true, many people are wondering why she didn’t have an attorney prepare an ironclad will.

Of course, no one can know Aretha Franklin’s motivations for certain. But as attorney Danielle Mayoras shared with local and national media, when it comes to estate planning, celebrities are a lot like everybody else.

Approximately two-thirds of Americans don’t have any kind of estate plan: not even a simple will (handwritten or otherwise). There are many reasons for that, some or all of which may have applied to Aretha Franklin. People are busy and procrastinate, In addition, sitting down with a lawyer to make a will involves facing our mortality. That being said, doing nothing at all is never good estate planning.

Lessons for the Rest of Us From Aretha Franklin’s Estate

Many of us don’t have Aretha Franklin’s fame, but there are still lessons we can learn from the legal battle over her estate.

First and foremost: every adult needs an estate plan—which means a will and/or trust as well as durable power of attorneys in case of legal incapacity.

If you don’t have an estate plan, state law will create one for you by default—and it may not be what you want. Also, avoiding doing your estate planning doesn’t eliminate emotional pain or discomfort; it just passes it on to your loved ones who are left wondering if they are really honoring your wishes.

When your family members are left in their grief to try to discern your wishes, they may disagree. Those disagreements can deepen into a permanent rift between your loved ones. That’s not what most people want. Even if you don’t have vast wealth, doing your estate planning has real value: promoting peace and harmony among your family and ensuring your wishes are made clear.

Lastly, while it is possible that a court would determine your handwritten will was valid, it is far better to eliminate all doubt. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney does more than ensure that your will or trust meets legal requirements. An attorney who specializes in estate planning and has prepared thousands of estate plans can anticipate potential issues that could arise and help you avoid them. A complete and comprehensive estate plan reduces the risk of conflict and confusion, and increases the likelihood that your wishes will be known and carried out.

To learn more about Michigan estate planning or how to create a valid Michigan will, speak with an experienced attorney. The knowledgeable estate planning attorneys at Barron, Rosenberg, Mayoras & Mayoras work with clients who need to make an estate plan. Schedule a consultation today by calling (248) 213-9514 in Michigan or (941) 222-2199 in Florida to learn how we can assist you. You can also use our simple online contact form.