The discovery of handwritten wills in the home of the late Aretha Franklin could ignite a dispute among family members about the estate of the “Queen of Soul.” She died last August without a formal document to guide her sons about her music, property and other assets. But the newly found writings filed in court Monday could change everything.
Here’s a look at what’s developing, nine months after Franklin’s death in Michigan at age 76:
HOW WERE THE WILLS DISCOVERED?
A niece, Sabrina Owens, who serves as the estate’s personal representative, discovered a key to a locked cabinet at Franklin’s home on May 3, according to a court filing. Two handwritten wills from 2010 were inside. One says a will from decades earlier is “no good.” The other one found in the cabinet is 11 pages long and has a notary’s signature.
On that same day, Owens was searching under living room cushions when she located a notebook with another will, dated March 2014. The four-page document sets aside various assets for family members, including four sons and grandchildren, but is difficult to read.
“We all think of your standard will where you go into an attorney’s office and get two witnesses to sign it,” said Charyn Hain, an estate lawyer. “Michigan allows for wills that aren’t completely compliant.”
COULD THE WILLS BE ADMISSIBLE?
Yes. Michigan law gives great weight to the wishes of a decedent. The state appeals court last year said a man’s final written words stored on a phone counted as a will.
“If it’s clear and convincing evidence of your intentions, it’s a perfectly valid document,” said Patrick Simasko, another estate specialist. “The court wants to do everything in its power to fulfill the wishes of the person who passed away.”
But Franklin’s newly discovered wills are disorganized and look like rough drafts. Words are crossed out. She used arrows and wrote in the margins.
“You have to sit down with a magnifying glass and blow it up, try to enhance it,” Simasko said.
The estate’s attorney, David Bennett, shared the wills with Franklin’s sons. He told a judge that the heirs “have been unable to reach a resolution” about their validity. A hearing is set for June 12.
Without a will, the estate typically would be divided among the sons, Simasko said.
WHAT DO THE WILLS SAY?
In the 2014 document, Franklin says she wants a son, Christian rapper Kecalf Franklin, to serve as personal representative of the estate.
Aretha Franklin’s sons last year agreed to have Owens oversee the estate, but that was before the documents were found. Any change would require the approval of Judge Jennifer Callaghan.
Emails seeking comment from Bennett and Kecalf Franklin’s attorney weren’t returned Tuesday. Separately, the younger Franklin is objecting to Owens’ plan to sell a piece of land for $325,000.
If Kecalf Franklin takes over, it “could be his business for many years,” Simasko said. “He would be hiring lawyers, hiring managers and getting paid to do it. Her music, her image, her publishing rights — those are all things that have to be managed.”
WHAT’S THE STATUS OF FRANKLIN’S ESTATE?
The value is not yet known, although the estate could be worth millions of dollars. The judge approved the hiring of experts to appraise assets, including Franklin’s music catalog, her likeness, concert gowns and memorabilia.
Bennett said in a court filing that the Internal Revenue Service is auditing many years of Franklin’s tax returns after making a claim for more than $6 million in taxes in December.
He said the estate is negotiating a contract with the TV series “Genius” and also working on a deal for a movie about Franklin’s life.
Detroit last week celebrated the renaming of a city-owned outdoor music amphitheater for Franklin. Mayor Mike Duggan recalled her performing past midnight there in 2015.
“This daughter of Detroit has a permanent memorial,” he said.