At first, Aretha Franklin’s family believed the division of her estate after her death in 2018 would be a straightforward task: Without a known will, the celebrated singer’s assets would be equally distributed among her four sons.
But months after Franklin’s funeral, a family member found documents, scrawled by hand and outlining her wishes — one set under a couch cushion in her home in suburban Detroit, another in a locked cabinet — plunging the estate into uncertainty.
In the four years since, Franklin’s sons have battled in a Michigan probate court over which of the conflicting documents should take precedence. On Monday, the issue heads to trial, with the precise distribution of Franklin’s remaining fortune, property and music rights at stake.
“I think they all wish this had been settled a week after she passed away,” said Craig A. Smith, a lawyer for Edward Franklin, the singer’s second eldest son. “But they’re not blaming anyone — it is what it is.”
At issue in the trial is which document best reflects Franklin’s wishes before she died, at age 76, of pancreatic cancer.
Two of her sons, Edward and Kecalf Franklin, assert that the document found in a spiral notebook under the couch cushions, which is dated March 2014 and substantially favors Kecalf, should be considered primary. Another son, Ted White Jr., contends that the papers found in the cabinet, dated June 2010, should take precedence.
The jury could also decide that neither document is a legitimate will, reverting back to an even division of the singer’s estate between her children, based on Michigan law. There is also a possible combined solution in which items from both documents would be taken into account.
Franklin’s eldest son, Clarence Franklin, who has a mental illness and is under a legal guardianship, has long been a player in the legal jockeying, as the 2014 will would appear to cause him to inherit significantly less than his brothers. But in recent weeks, his representatives reached a settlement for an undisclosed percentage of the estate. As a result, they will not be taking a side in the trial, said Joseph Buttiglieri, a lawyer for Clarence Franklin’s guardian.
A pathbreaking musician acclaimed as the Queen of Soul, Franklin won 18 Grammy Awards, had more than 100 singles on the Billboard charts, and left behind the trappings of a star: four homes, several cars, furs, jewelry and gold records. The total estate was estimated at about $18 million after she died, Mr. Smith said, though another appraisal suggested the figure might be lower.
But Franklin, who was known to be intensely private about her finances, also left a significant tax liability. In 2021, her estate reached a deal with the Internal Revenue Service to pay off about $8 million in federal income taxes by setting aside a portion of any new revenue from music royalties or projects like the recent Hollywood biopic starring Jennifer Hudson.
At the heart of the trial are more than a dozen pages of Franklin’s scrawled-out wishes, filled with crossed out words and insertions. The process of interpreting a deceased person’s intentions from the lines of a handwritten document can be a confusing, contentious process, one that made for a gripping story line in the HBO series “Succession.” In the show’s final season, the family patriarch’s heirs struggled to decode penciled-in addendums to his last wishes that were found locked in a safe.
The effort to determine Franklin’s true desires has turned up three voice mail messages, recorded months before the singer died, in which she discussed another will that she had been preparing with an estate lawyer, Henry Grix.
In the messages, which were played in court earlier this year, Franklin said she had already decided some details around her estate, including that she wanted her pianos to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s, but she noted that she was leaving other decisions for a future meeting at the lawyer’s office.
Ted White Jr., whose father had been Franklin’s manager and first husband, asked that the court favor documents that had been drafted by Mr. Grix, an experienced estate planning lawyer, in the final three years of the singer’s life, arguing that it was the most recent expression of her wishes. But the judge overseeing the case, Jennifer S. Callaghan, excluded the documents from consideration in the trial, citing testimony from Mr. Grix maintaining that he had been left with the impression that Franklin “hadn’t made up her mind” about the will.
“It is clear to this court,” Judge Callaghan wrote in a May decision, “that the attorney who was retained to personally memorialize the Decedent’s estate plan did not believe that the Decedent had yet reached a final, complete plan.”
That leaves two documents for the six-person jury to consider.
In the 2014 document, three of Franklin’s sons — excluding Clarence — would receive equal shares of their mother’s music royalties, but the distribution of her personal property would be weighted toward Kecalf. According to the document, Kecalf would receive two of four homes and the singer’s cars, the number of which is not specified.
In court papers, a lawyer for Kecalf Franklin argued that the 2014 document should be considered a legal will because it is the most recent handwritten document by Franklin outlining her plans. (There is a dispute over whether the singer officially signed the document. One side says a smiley face paired with “Franklin” represents her signature on the final page of the document; the other has disagreed.)
Mr. Smith said that although his client, Edward Franklin, would benefit more financially if the wills were deemed invalid, his client supports the 2014 document because he believes “that’s what Aretha wanted.”
In steadfast opposition to the 2014 will is Mr. White, whose lawyer, Kurt A. Olson, wrote in court papers: “If this document were intended to be a will there would have been more care than putting it in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion.”
As evidence in support of the 2010 document, which specifies weekly and monthly allowances for the four sons, Mr. Olson pointed to the fact that it was notarized and that Franklin had signed each page.
Mr. White has yet to sign off on the settlement reached around Clarence Franklin’s piece of the estate, and it will ultimately be subject to the judge’s approval.
Witnesses in the trial, which is expected to last less than a week in Oakland County Probate Court in Pontiac, Mich., are likely to include some of Franklin’s sons; the person who notarized the 2010 estate document; a handwriting expert; and a niece of the singer’s, Sabrina Owens, who discovered the potential wills in 2019. Ms. Owens had initially served as Franklin’s personal representative — similar to the role of executor — until strife within the family prompted her resignation.
Nicholas E. Papasifakis, a Michigan estate lawyer, currently serves as Franklin’s personal representative and is not taking a side in the dispute between the heirs.
After the trial has concluded and the estate has been settled, there will still be issues that will require cooperation within the fractured family. Biopics or tribute concerts would require universal agreement, unless the heirs were to appoint a business manager to manage such decisions, said Mr. Smith, the lawyer representing Edward Franklin.
“We’re hoping that everyone gets along a little better after this has been resolved,” he said.