An almost five-year long legal quagmire has finally come to an end after a Michigan jury delivered a ruling in the Aretha Franklin estate case, deciding that a 2014 document found in the couch was a valid will.
When Franklin succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2018, “it was widely believed she had not prepared a will to roughly $6m in real estate, cash, gold records and furs, or to her music copyrights,” BBC reports. Without a will, under Michigan law, Franklin’s assets were to be divided equally amongst her “four sons, Kecalf, Edward and Clarence Franklin, and Ted White Jr.”
That all changed nine months later after Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece and executor of the estate at the time, “discovered two separate sets of handwritten documents at the singer’s” Detroit home.
An older version, which was dated June 2010, was located alongside legal documents including record contracts inside of a locked drawer in a desk. The newer version, which was dated “March 2014, was found within a spiral notebook containing Franklin’s doodles wedged beneath the living room sofa cushions.”
These two documents served to cause an immediate rift and “pitted the late Queen of Soul’s children against each other in a battle over two handwritten versions of the singer’s final wishes” because of their difference in the division of assets.
Per The New York Times, “The earlier one specified weekly and monthly allowances to each of Franklin’s four sons. It also stipulated that Kecalf and Edward ‘must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree’ to collect from the estate,” whereas “In the later will, three of Franklin’s sons — 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.”
Predictably, Kecalf and Edward were in favor of the 2014 document. Of note, although both documents were handwritten, the 2010 was more detailed, has her signature on every single page, and was notarized. But, “[t]here was no dispute that Franklin had written” both documents and neither were prepared by an attorney.
This all led to a two-day long trial, where the probate court jury ruled that the four-page 2014 document found in between couch cushions “should serve as her will.”
While the battle has caused a family to be divided, the sons did agree on one thing—supporting “Clarence, the singer’s first child, who according to court papers has a mental illness.”
Surprisingly, Franklin is not the only celebrity to die without an immediately apparent will, leaving a contested estate in their passing. Both Chadwick Boseman and Prince died without a last will and testament in place.
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common problem in the Black community. As ESSENCE has previously reported, “nearly 70% of African Americans have no will or estate plan in place.” This leads to devastating results, including the fact “that Black Americans are missing out on the largest wealth transfer in history.” As estate attorney Portia Wood said, “We are in a state of emergency now.”