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New Details emerge about The Queen of Soul: Aretha Franklin’s Estate

aretha franklin probate raises question of what you do when you die without a will

As you likely already know, the great Aretha Franklin, known as the Queen of Soul, passed away on August 16th, 2018 at her home in Detroit, Michigan. Her greatest hits – “Respect”, “A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, defined her as a modern woman and brought the fervor of gospel music to secular songs.

With an estimated worth upwards of $80 million, Aretha Franklin was known to be such a tough business woman that she insisted on being paid cash up front before her performances.  But her toughness in financial matters didn’t extend to end of life planning. And interestingly enough, it appears Ms. Franklin had actually been one of the personal representatives for 3 separate probate cases – her father C.L. Franklin, her sister Carolyn Franklin, and her brother, Cecil LaRone Franklin.

Had Aretha been through so much with the death of her own family members that she couldn’t come to terms with the prospect of her own death?

Despite her apparent experience with probates and the fact that Aretha knew she was dying of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76, the Queen of Soul passed away without leaving a will.  One of her longtime lawyers, Don Wilson, urged her repeatedly to draft a will saying, “I tried to convince her that she should do not just a will but a trust while she was still alive. She never told me, ‘No, I don’t want to do one.’  She understood the need. It just didn’t seem to be something she got around to.”

Papers filed in Michigan’s Oakland County court last week by another one of her longtime lawyers, David Bennett, stated that she was not married and is survived by four sons, Clarence Franklin, Edward Franklin, Kecalf Franklin and Ted White Jr.  Clarence Franklin is the eldest at age 63 and being incapacitated is represented by a legal guardian. The role of executor has been accepted by a niece of Ms. Franklin.

Aretha Franklin’s sizeable estate will most likely be split among her four sons, according to intestate succession laws in Michigan, where the singer resided most of her life and where she died. But determining how many millions she was worth and dividing it up is a process that could take years and is likely to play out in public.  Wilson said that Franklin would not want to see her finances publicly aired – ”She was a private person.”

Franklin had ownership of the songs she wrote and did well by them, Wilson says, though her biggest songs, like “Respect” were written by other people (Otis Redding in that case). “I would imagine she probably felt she was entitled to more, but probably received more than a lot of artists from the time, especially African-American artists,”

The documents filed in Michigan do not mention the value of Franklin’s estate,but once the value is established (and that could take years), the IRS will tax her estate at 40% for any assets beyond $11.2 million.  Luckily for Franklin’s heirs, the estate tax threshold was just doubled and the estate tax itself remained at a flat 40% (as opposed to being raised to prior values nearing 60%). Generally, the IRS will first conduct an audit of the deceased’s holdings and take any back taxes that he or she may have owed prior to death.

When a celebrity – or a layperson for that matter – dies, it is not just the children and IRS who make claims on his or her estate. Friends, extended family, creditors, and countless others often come forward to make a claim on the estate. The higher the profile of the individual and the more public the affair – the more people that often come forward. This was clearly seen in Prince’s estate where countless individuals came forward, many of them falsely claiming to be related to the celebrity. Claims can be made on an estate through multiple avenues – the creditor claim process, claims of “oral contract to make a will,” an actual will, intestate succession, among others. The probate court will decide which claims are valid and which are not. Multiple claims and issues arising in the course of a probate frequently cause assets to become stuck in probate for months – if not years. Due to the high value of Franklin’s estate, it is unlikely her probate will be wrapped up any time soon.

Aretha Franklin is not the only celebrity to die without leaving a will. Prince’s estate, valued somewhere between $100 million and $300 million when he died in 2016 had nothing planned in the event of his passing.  And according to the Washington Post’s Kathleen Heller, the result was “legal challenges” that created “a mess.”

While I have assisted beneficiaries of celebrity estates, the majority of my clients are people dealing with estates of more modest value. When no estate planning has been done, or improper estate planning exists, complications arise that often result in stressful situations which could have been avoided with prudent estate planning. Therefore, I strongly recommend that everyone not only do their estate plan – but do it before it’s too late. And don’t stop there – communicate your estate plan to your heirs so that everyone is prepared for the inevitable. We all hope it comes later rather than sooner, but in truth, you never know.

For more information on Estate Planning, Probate, or Probate Litigation in Contra Costa County, contact my Walnut Creek Trust and Estate Law Firm at 925-322-1795 for a consultation.

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