More than four years of family dispute over Aretha Franklin’s estate ended Tuesday when a Michigan jury decided what her family couldn’t: which of two hand-scrawled wills represented the famed singer’s true wishes on how to divide her estate. .
After a two-day trial in probate court in Pontiac, Michigan, a six-person jury decided after less than an hour of deliberation that a four-page document written by Franklin in 2014 and discovered under a sofa cushion at his home, months after Franklin’s death in 2018, should serve as his will.
The verdict resolved the biggest problem hanging over the Franklin estate and sets in motion a plan for how the income and assets of his estate should be divided.
“We just want to exhale right now,” Kecalf Franklin, one of the singer’s four children, said outside the courtroom. “It has been a long five years for my family and my children.”
After the singer died, at the age of 76, her family believed that she did not have a will. Under Michigan law, his estate would have been divided equally among his four sons: Kecalf, Edward and Clarence Franklin, and Ted White Jr. The sons unanimously selected a cousin as personal representative of the estate, a position similar to that of an executor.
But months later, in May 2019, the two handwritten documents were found in Franklin’s suburban Detroit home, one in a locked cabinet and the other in a spiral notebook on the couch, immediately divided the children of the singer. It also raised questions about how music royalties and other income from the estate, as well as prized items such as Franklin’s furs, jewelry, and musical instruments, would be distributed.
Neither document was prepared by a lawyer, and neither includes witnesses, although the first was notarized. Both had detailed lists of assets, along with what appeared to be superfluous information, such as dismissive comments about some of the men in Franklin’s life.
In the absence of a traditionally executed will, the jury was left to decide whether the 2014 document met Michigan law standards, which allow “holographic”, or handwritten, wills.
The wills also divided Franklin’s assets differently. The old one specified weekly and monthly allowances for each of Franklin’s four children. It also stipulated that Kecalf and Edward “must take business classes and obtain a certificate or degree” to collect from the estate.
In the later will, three of Franklin’s children, all except Clarence, would receive equal shares of their mother’s music royalties, but Kecalf and his children would receive more of Franklin’s personal property. According to the document, Kecalf would receive his mother’s main home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, valued at $1.1 million at the time of her death, as well as the singer’s cars. According to a report filed with the court in March, Franklin owned a Mercedes-Benz, two Cadillacs and a Thunderbird convertible.
Kecalf and Edward favored the latter document, saying it represented their last wishes and revoked the earlier one. White, who long played guitar in his mother’s band, argued for the 2010 will; At about a dozen pages, that document is much more detailed and has Franklin’s signature on every page.
“Yes, there’s nothing that says you can’t keep a will in a spiral notebook on the cushion of your couch,” Kurt A. Olson, White’s attorney, said in his opening statement. “The biggest problem here is, what was his intention?”
According to Craig A. Smith, Edward Franklin’s attorney, the sons have agreed to support Clarence, the singer’s first child, who court documents say has a mental illness.
The judge in charge of the case, Jennifer S. Callaghan, said that even though the jury found the 2014 will valid, White can still argue that aspects of the earlier document could be incorporated into the estate plan.
As the probate case made its way through the courts over the years, it became combative. Kecalf accused Sabrina Owens, the cousin initially chosen to manage the estate, of mismanagement. She resigned from the position in 2020, citing the “rift” that had developed in the family.
In the small courtroom this week, there was still a palpable coolness between Kecalf, Edward, and Ted White Jr. There were no handshakes, no small talk, and no eye contact between the trio of grown men, who sat shoulder to shoulder in a bank behind their respective lawyers.
White held his wife’s hand throughout the trial. He said that the brothers are stiff with each other in court, but they still talk differently.
“We’re as close as three older men can get,” White told a reporter inside the courtroom Monday.
After the trial concluded, Kecalf denied that there was any bad blood between him and White. “I love my brother with all my heart,” he said.
There was no doubt that Franklin had written the documents, although there has been debate as to whether the 2014 will was signed correctly: a smiley face appears to take the place of his first initial.
“Why would someone sign a document if it was just a draft?” Charles L. McKelvie, Kecalf’s attorney, asked in court.
After Franklin’s death, his estate was valued at $18 million, according to Smith. In 2021, the estate reached an agreement with the Internal Revenue Service to pay about $8 million in federal income taxes; Under that deal, the estate said it would set aside 40 percent of revenue, including royalties and music licensing, as well as revenue from projects like “Respect,” the 2021 biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, to pay Federal taxes owed on the estate. as well as the estimated taxes owed by the heirs.
This year’s court accounting document lists $4.1 million in real and personal property, including several homes in Michigan; $42,000 in furs; $73,000 in jewelry; Franklin’s music-related businesses and accounts; and just over $1 million in bank balances. The accounting did not attempt to estimate future earnings from the license fees to her estate.