Aretha Franklin, the electrifying “Queen of Soul,” died in August 2018, closing the curtains on one of the most illustrious careers in American popular music. But in at least one crucial respect, her story is not over.
Five years after Franklin’s death at her home in suburban Detroit, her last wishes remain an open question and the subject of intense debate. The battle over the singer’s estate is now going to trial in probate court, with proceedings set to kick off Monday.
The singer did not leave behind formal, typewritten instructions for her money and property. Eight months after her death, however, handwritten wills were found hidden in her home — including one inside a spiral notebook crammed under sofa cushions.
Three of Franklin’s four sons are divided on the future of their mother’s estate. Ted White II, Franklin’s third son, believes a document from 2010 should hold sway, while Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin, her second and fourth sons, prefer a document dated March 31, 2014, according to court filings submitted to Oakland County Probate Court in Pontiac, Michigan.
Clarence Franklin, the singer’s eldest son, will not be involved in the courtroom drama. He has special needs and lives under a legal guardianship, and both wills say he must be supported financially by the estate. (“Kecalf, Eddie and Teddy must check on Clarence and give him$,” Franklin wrote in the 2014 document, according to one of the court filings.)
In some states, the papers in question — filled with scratched-out phrases, scrawled notes in the margins and personal digressions — might not even qualify as wills. But in Michigan, “holographic” or handwritten wills pass muster if they meet certain criteria.
Don Wilson, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer who represented Franklin for nearly 30 years, told NBC News that he strongly advised her to prepare a formal will. But she may have been resistant to taking that step, he said.
“We insisted that she have a will and a trust as part of her estate planning. But she was a very private person and I think she didn’t want to share that information with another individual, such as an attorney. I think that’s why, for the longest time, she didn’t go into someone’s office and do formal planning,” Wilson said. “She went ahead and wrote them up herself.”
Franklin, best known for galvanizing anthems such as “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 16, 2018, the singer’s publicist said at the time. She was 76. She left behind assets valued in the millions, from real estate in Michigan to luxury possessions such as furs, gowns and jewelry.
In the days to come, a jury will decide which version of the Queen of Soul’s commands will prevail.
The issues at play
The two documents at issue in the trial were uncovered in the spring of 2019: The one from 2010 was found in a closet, the one from 2014 was discovered stuffed in a sofa. Both of the documents appear to say that Franklin’s children should share royalty income from her music and copyrights. But the singer’s sons are fiercely split on other matters.
The 11-page document from 2010 states that White and a niece, Sabrina Owens, should be the co-executors of her estate, and that Kecalf and Edward Franklin “must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” to reap the rewards of the estate.
The four-page document from 2014 crosses out White’s and Owens’ names, however, and puts Kecalf Franklin in their place. The document says nothing about business classes or degrees. (Owens was originally appointed to handle the singer’s estate, but she resigned in 2020, citing the growing acrimony among the Franklin brothers.)
The more recent document also states that Kecalf Franklin would inherit his mother’s primary residence inside an exclusive gated community in Bloomfield Hills, an affluent suburb of Detroit.
Kurt A. Olson, White's attorney, said in a court filing that while the document favored by the two other siblings is more recent, only the 2010 version is notarized.
“It will be argued that if this document were intended to be a will,” Olson wrote, referring to the 2014 document, “there would have been more care than putting it in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion. Sabrina Owens will testify to this.”
The fine print of both documents suggests a woman who was keenly aware of her towering artistic legacy. In the 2014 document, for instance, Franklin wrote that her gowns “could be auctioned at Sotheby Auction House NY ... or go to [the] Smithsonian Museum Washington or whatever they chose.”
Judge Jennifer S. Callaghan, who was first elected to the Oakland County Probate Court bench in 2016, will preside over the trial.
Franklin is not the first entertainment industry luminary whose will was the subject of unresolved questions. James Brown’s estate, for example, became mired in probate, family and copyright issues after his death in 2006.