Aretha Franklin’s Estate Still in Court Three Years After Her Death

Picture of Aretha FranklinNearly three years have passed since Aretha Franklin, known as the “Queen of Soul,” died from pancreatic cancer at age 76. At the time, her total fortune was estimated to be worth up to $80 million. Yet due to poor estate planning, the late singer’s children have yet to see a dime of their inheritance, and what they ultimately do receive will be significantly depleted by back taxes. Moreover, it’s still not clear whether or not Aretha ever had a valid will.

When she passed away in August 2018, her family thought that Aretha died without any estate plan at all. But since then, four different wills attributed to the late singer have been discovered. And ever since those documents came to light, her four adult sons—Clarence, Edward, Ted White Jr., and Kecalf—have been in court fighting one another over her assets, as well as who among them should be designated as the estate’s representative.

While a trial is set for August 2021 to establish whether any of the four documents, some of which are handwritten and barely legible, can formally stand as her will, Aretha’s story demonstrates just how destructive shoddy estate planning can be for the loved ones we leave behind.

Indeed, although her alleged wills clearly show Aretha was concerned for the well-being of her family and wanted them to share her fortune, the legendary singer’s haphazard planning has pitted brother against brother, exposed dark family secrets, and lost millions of dollars to the IRS. And perhaps worst of all, while the legendary singer was notoriously private, all of this has played out in the news headlines for the whole world to see.

Aretha’s situation is definitely tragic, and sadly, far too common among famous musicians—Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley all died without a will. Yet we cover her story and others like it in hopes that it will inspire you to do right by your loved ones by creating a proper estate plan.

And such planning is vital even if you have far less wealth than Aretha. In fact, planning can be even more critical for those with fewer assets. After all, given Aretha’s massive fortune, it’s likely that her heirs will still receive an inheritance, while similar mistakes would likely totally wipe out a smaller estate.

With this in mind, here we’ll discuss Aretha’s planning mistakes and how those errors have impacted both her family and fortune. From there, we’ll explain how proper planning could have prevented the entire mess from ever happening, and then we’ll outline the steps you can take to make certain that, unlike Aretha, your loved ones never have to endure such a nightmare.

Three Wills, a Sofa, and a Spiral Notebook

Aretha Franklin passed away due to pancreatic cancer in her Detroit home on August 16, 2018. At the time, it was widely believed she didn’t have a will. As a result, Michigan law stipulated her assets would be divided equally among her four adult sons, and they agreed to designate their cousin—Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens—as the estate’s executor. 

But in May 2019, nine months after Aretha’s death, Sabrina discovered three different handwritten wills while cleaning out the late singer’s home. According to Hour Detroit magazine, the three documents—two of which were dated from 2010 and found in a locked cabinet and one dated from 2014 was scribbled in a spiral notebook found under her sofa cushions—contain conflicting instructions for how the singer wanted her assets divided and whom she wanted as her executor.  

The 2010 copies of Aretha’s handwritten will provide for regular allowances for all four sons and leave specific assets to each of them. Those documents also name Sabrina and her son Ted as executors. The 2014 version, however, provides for a simpler division of her assets in equal shares between her three youngest sons, and it leaves the decision as to how much money their older brother, Clarence, should receive up to his three brothers.

Clarence, Aretha’s first child, has unspecified special needs, and he is currently 66 years old and has lived in a group home near Detroit for decades. Clarence is represented by his own court-appointed attorney. 

Furthermore, in her 2014 will, Aretha reportedly wrote the names of Sabrina, Ted, and Kecalf as executors, but then apparently crossed out the first two names, according to Hour Detroit. Given this, when the three wills were discovered, Kecalf filed in court to be appointed as the estate’s executor.

However, Ted and the attorney for Clarence, fought against this move. In a court filing, Clarence’s attorney noted that Kecalf isn’t fit to be the executor, as he has not “displayed any ability or inclination to support himself and lacks the financial knowledge or ability to act as a fiduciary.”

Family Secrets Come to Light

In addition to causing infighting between the brothers, Aretha’s handwritten wills also disclosed a previously unknown fact about Clarence’s father, according to a report by NBC News. Aretha gave birth to Clarence Franklin in 1955, when she was just 12 years old. The late singer rarely discussed her personal life in public, and up until recently, Clarence’s father was reported to be a friend of Aretha’s from school, named Donald Burk.

However, one of the handwritten wills from 2010 names Clarence’s father as Edward Jordan Sr., who’s also the father of Aretha’s second son, Edward, who was born when she was 14. Little is known about Jordan, but in the will, Aretha makes it clear that he was a terrible father and should get nothing from her estate.   

On page six of the document, Aretha wrote, “His father, Edward Jordan Sr., should never receive or handle any money or property belonging to Clarence or that Clarence receives, as he has never made any contribution to his welfare, future, or past.” In both instances, the word “never” was underlined.

The resulting court battle between the brothers also led Sabrina to quit as executor. In January 2020, Sabrina filed her resignation with the court, noting that the family feud “is not what [Aretha] would have wanted for us.” With Sabrina gone, in March 2020, Oakland County Probate Court Judge Jennifer Callaghan appointed Reginald Turner, a Detroit attorney and longtime friend of Aretha’s, as temporary personal representative for the estate.

The judge also scheduled a hearing for June 2020 to determine whether any of the three handwritten wills can be deemed valid. Under Michigan law, a handwritten, or holographic, will can be valid as long as it meets three primary requirements: it must be dated, signed, and written by the decedent.

A Fourth Will Appears

Although the judge set a trial to determine the validity of the three wills for the summer of 2020, the ensuing pandemic caused that trial to be delayed—and in the interim, yet another will was uncovered.

According to the New York Times, the latest version of her will, which was filed in probate court in March 2021 by lawyers for Clarence and Ted, including a typed, eight-page document, titled “The Will of Aretha Franklin,” along with another 23 pages that reportedly lay out the terms of a trust for Clarence. The documents are stamped as “draft” and unsigned.

The latest will was reportedly created by Aretha with the law firm Dickinson Wright in 2018, which would make it the most recent. According to the court filing, Aretha hired Detroit lawyer Henry Grix to assist her with estate planning, and the filing includes correspondence between Grix and Aretha discussing her estate plan that’s dated back to 2017. 

As for the division of her assets, the draft of the fourth will would create a trust to benefit Clarence, and it would split her remaining assets equally between her three other sons and leave specific assets to her other relatives. The will also stipulates that the three youngest sons should serve as the estate’s representatives, and as such, they would have the authority to make determinations about the late singer’s music rights, name, and likeness.

According to the lawyers for Clarence and Ted, the documents show that Aretha hired Grix and had been in discussions with him for more than two years about her estate plan, and the documents contained her initials. However, the late singer became too ill “to finish discussions on a few items” and was unable to sign the papers.

It remains unclear exactly how the documents were obtained and why it took so long for them to come to light. While the court filing noted that the documents were discovered “late in 2019,” the lawyer for Clarence told the New York Times that the date was a mistake and that he actually received the document in December 2020 in a response to a subpoena.

Although the fourth will was not signed by Aretha, in his petition, Ted asks the court to recognize the draft of the will and its accompanying notes as Aretha’s final wishes. His petition cites a Michigan law that allows a deceased person’s “intent to be recognized even if the documents are defective in execution.” 

In light of the new will, the judge scheduled a trial for August 2021 to determine whether any of the documents that have been found can be deemed a valid will and therefore govern the Queen of Soul’s estate.

An Incomplete and Inadequate Plan

Based on all of the different versions of her will, it’s clear that Aretha cared deeply about her four sons and other family members, and she wanted her loved ones to benefit from her wealth and other assets. However, given that her first few attempts at planning were done on her own, by hand, and then seemingly lost or forgotten about, she didn’t take the job as seriously as she should have—at least in the beginning. 

Additionally, while the discovery of the fourth will suggests that Aretha did get serious about creating a more formal plan in her final years, it’s puzzling why that version of her will and its corresponding instructions to create a trust for her oldest son, Clarence, didn’t surface earlier. Indeed, if the New York Times report is accurate, those documents were only uncovered in response to a subpoena, and even then, they were incomplete, unsigned, and in our opinion, far from adequate for an estate that large and complex.

The IRS Comes Calling

Given that none of Aretha’s four alleged wills were properly completed or filed with the court, her estate and all its assets remain stuck in court, awaiting a judge to rule on the validity of those documents. However, even if one of those wills was proven valid, her assets would still be inaccessible to her loved ones due to her massive tax debt.

Even if Aretha’s fourth will is ruled valid, her estate is still on the hook for millions in back taxes. According to the Detroit Free Press, when she died in 2018, the IRS claimed the singer’s estate owed more than $7.8 million in unpaid income taxes, interest, and penalties. which accrued from 2010 to 2017, according to the Detroit Free Press. While her sons have appealed the total amount owed, the estate has been steadily paying on the tax debt and interest since Aretha’s death, and as of December 2020, the remaining unpaid balance with the IRS was estimated to be $4.75 million. 

In March 2021, a tentative deal was reached with the IRS to pay off the debt, as well as finally distribute some cash to her four sons. Under the agreement, which was reached with attorneys for Aretha’s sons, the IRS will receive an immediate payment of $800,000. Additionally, 45% of quarterly revenue from the estate, which comes largely from royalties and licensing, will be paid toward the balance due to the IRS. Another 40% is to be held in an escrow account to pay future taxes on income generated by the estate.

The deal also stipulates that Aretha’s four sons will receive an immediate payment of just $50,000 each. From there, they are set to get quarterly payouts in equally distributed shares of whatever is left after the remaining 15% of revenue is used to cover the estate’s administration costs, which could eat up a substantial part of the remaining funds.

Although the deal must still be approved by a judge, and Aretha’s sons continue to dispute the total amount of taxes owed, the agreement stipulates that any overpayments to the IRS will be returned to the estate for equal distribution to the sons should they be successful in proving a lower amount is due, whether in trial or through a settlement outside of court.

The Dangers of DIY Planning

Aretha made an obvious mistake by attempting to create her first three wills on her own by hand, with apparently no help from legal counsel, and the fact that those wills were lost for years attests to just how risky do-it-yourself (DIY) planning can be. Indeed, when you rely on DIY estate planning instead of the services of a trusted advisor guiding you and your family, your planning documents can easily disappear or even be stolen and changed by someone else. 

When we create or update your plan, it is standard practice for us to not only keep current copies of your documents in a file at our office, but we also ensure that everyone named in your plan knows what their role is and what to do when something happens to you. This way, the people you choose can immediately put the necessary legal actions in motion to effectively manage your estate.

While it is always a good idea to have a lawyer help you create your planning documents, this is particularly true when you have a blended family like Aretha’s. If you are in a second (or more) marriage, with children from a prior marriage, there is an inherent risk of dispute because your children and spouse often have conflicting interests, particularly if there is significant wealth at stake.

And the risk of conflict is vastly increased if you are looking to disinherit a beneficiary, like Aretha may have attempted to do in one of her wills. By creating your own plan, even with the help of an online document service, like LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, or, you will not be able to consider and plan ahead to avoid all the potential legal and family conflicts that could arise.

As your Personal Family Lawyer®, our processes and systems are designed to identify and prevent conflicts before they ever happen, and our unique planning process can help create connections among your loved ones and bring your family closer together. In fact, this is part of our special sauce!

Relying on a Will Alone is Not Enough

Next up in the list of Aretha’s planning failures is her fourth will, which was reportedly created with help of the Detroit law firm Dickinson Wright, according to the Detroit Free Press. Although the fact that Aretha hired a law firm to help her draft the will shows that the singer was apparently getting more serious about planning, her efforts there still failed.

First off, because her estate plan includes only a will and not a trust to hold title to her assets privately, Aretha’s family had a guarantee of getting stuck in the court process known as probate. And as we have already seen in Aretha’s case, probate can not only be a long, drawn-out process that takes years to complete, but it can also create ugly conflicts between family members and waste significant money on lawyer’s fees.

Worst of all, relying on a will alone has the potential to have disastrous repercussions for one of Aretha’s family members in particular—her oldest son, Clarence, who has special needs. While Aretha’s fourth will reportedly contained instructions to create a trust for Clarence, it is unclear exactly what kind of a trust this would be, and regardless of the type, it appears that no trust was ever set up. 

Planning For Those With Special Needs

When planning for a loved one with special needs, you must be extremely careful and always work with an experienced lawyer like us, because if handled improperly, you can easily disqualify your loved one with special needs from much-needed government benefits. Because individuals with special needs often require a lifetime of healthcare and other forms of support, most of these individuals rely on government programs to offset the exorbitant costs of such care.

However, these programs have strict income limits, so if you leave money directly to a person with special needs, such as through a will as Aretha seemed to do, you risk disqualifying him or her for those benefits. Aretha could have set up a planning vehicle known as a Special Needs Trust for her son Clarence. By creating a Special Needs Trust, Aretha would be able to provide supplemental financial resources for Clarence for the rest of his life, without affecting his eligibility for public healthcare and income assistance benefits like Medicaid and Social Security. 

That said, the rules for Special Needs Trusts are complicated and can vary greatly between different states, so if you have a loved one with special needs like Clarence, be sure to work with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. We can make certain that upon your death, your loved one with special needs would have the financial means they need to live a full life, without jeopardizing their access to government benefits.

One final benefit a Special Needs Trust would have had for Clarence is the fact that such a trust—like all trusts—would not be required to go through probate, so Clarence would have had immediate access to his inheritance. And though Clarence’s three brothers do not require a Special Needs Trust, they too would have been far better off had Aretha used a trust instead of just a will to leave them their inheritance.

Lifetime Asset Protection Trusts: Airtight Protection for Your Children’s Inheritance

While there are several types of trusts available, given the size of Aretha’s fortune and the complexity of her assets—which include the rights to her vast catalog of music, as well as royalties from her recordings and licensing rights to her name and image—we would have advised the Queen of Soul to create a Lifetime Asset Protection Trust to pass her assets to her three youngest sons, Edward, Ted White Jr., and Kecalf.

Using a Lifetime Asset Protection Trust, Aretha could have not only immediately transferred her assets to her sons upon her death or incapacity, without the need for court intervention, but she could have also ensured that those assets would transfer with protection from common life events like divorce, serious illness, lawsuits, and even bankruptcy. At the same time, the trust would give her sons the ability to access, manage, and invest those assets, while retaining airtight asset protection for their entire lives.

Guidance and Direction For Your Children’s Inheritance—And Your Legacy

Had Aretha used a trust, she could have provided guidelines to the Trustee, providing him or her with clear directions about how her assets could be used for her beneficiaries’ benefit, or even built-in provisions to let her heirs control their own inheritance while maintaining their asset protection benefits. By providing a Trustee with guidelines for distributions, you can be sure that the person you name to handle your affairs is aware of your wishes and values when making distributions, rather than simply guessing about what you would have wanted, which often leads to problems.

Given that Aretha’s estate includes the rights to her music, name, and likeness, all of which can provide a potentially indefinite source of income for her loved ones, it is almost certain that Aretha would have wanted a say in how this priceless intellectual property should be managed in the future. A Lifetime Asset Protection Trust would give Aretha the ability to govern how these treasured assets should—and should not be—used by her heirs, ensuring that her artistic legacy is always honored, and her family can benefit from her incredible talent for generations to come. 

Although a Lifetime Asset Protection Trust would have been an ideal way for the Queen of Soul to protect and pass on her assets, such trusts are not for everyone. But contrary to what you might think, Lifetime Asset Protection Trusts are not just for the rich and famous.

These protective trusts can be even more useful if you are leaving a relatively modest inheritance, since the smaller the inheritance, the more at risk it is of getting wiped out by a single unfortunate event like a medical emergency or lawsuit. That said, if your kids are going to spend most of their inheritance on everyday expenses and consumables, such trusts probably do not make much sense.

Meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to see if a Lifetime Asset Protection Trust is the right choice for your family.

Learn from Aretha’s Mistakes

Regardless of your financial status, planning for your potential incapacity and eventual death is something that you should take care of immediately, especially if you have children. While Aretha lived a relatively long life, you never know when tragedy may strike, and through diligent estate planning, you can save your family from the needless disputes, expense, and embarrassing public exposure the late singer’s loved ones are currently enduring.

As Aretha Franklin’s story demonstrates, do-it-yourself planning can have terrible consequences for your family—and in the worst cases, it can be even worse than if you had no estate plan at all. We urge you to use the Queen of Soul’s story as a learning experience—when done properly, estate planning can keep your family out of court, out of conflict, and out of the public eye. Even more, truly effective planning can ensure your wealth, assets, and legacy are protected and used to benefit your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in strict accordance with your values.

To ensure your estate plan works exactly as intended, meet with your Personal Family Lawyer® to review and update your current plan or create one if you have yet to do so. Contact us today to schedule your appointment.

This article is a service of [name], Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

celebrities, Estate Plan, Mistakes