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Aretha Franklin's handwritten wills raise tangled legal questions

Aretha Franklin's handwritten wills might not pass muster in some states. But a court in Michigan, where she died, is more likely to take them seriously, experts say.
Image: Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin at Radio City Music Hall in April 2017.Charles Sykes / Invision/AP file

The three wills found hidden in Aretha Franklin's suburban Detroit home this month may not be easy to decipher. The combined 16 pages are handwritten, filled with scratched-out phrases, notes in the margins and occasional digressions.

In some states, the documents might not even qualify as wills because they evidently were not notarized or were signed without witnesses present, according to legal experts. But the Queen of Soul died in Michigan, and experts said courts there are far more likely to take the documents seriously.

That's because Michigan — like roughly half the states — allows for a "holographic" or handwritten will if it is dated and signed and as long as its "material portions are in the testator's handwriting," per the text of the statute.

The wills are, in fact, dated — one from March 2014, two from 2010 — and each page appears to be signed, according to Leigh-Alexandra Basha, an estate and tax planning lawyer at the firm McDermott Will & Emery in Washington, who reviewed the scanned copies posted online.

It's less clear whether the pages are in Franklin's handwriting, legal experts said. The probate court or Franklin's family could seek out a handwriting expert or a forensic document examiner to study the penmanship, much of which is scrawled, Basha said.

Jeffrey H. Luber, a veteran forensic document examiner in the New York area, said the examiner would likely need a contemporaneous writing sample to see whether certain characteristics — the height of letters, the style of the pen strokes — are a match.

But that analysis could be challenging if there's reason to believe Franklin's penmanship was affected by illness or some other debilitation at the time, Luber said.

And forensic handwriting analysis, for what it's worth, has its skeptics and doubters. "It's an attempt to be scientific, but it's not an exact science," said William D. Zabel, a New York lawyer who specializes in estate planning, wills and trusts.

James R. Hines Jr., a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, said verifying the pages might become more complex if the probate court has any reason to believe they were not intended as a will in the first place.

"The court will have to decide if the testator wanted this to be their last will and testament and not another kind of document," Hines said. "Let's take the 2014 document, for example. Did she intend that to be her will, or was it notes for a future will or a diary entry to keep her ideas in order?"

Hines said any probate court would study the content of the documents and consider the circumstances in which they were written.

And while courts tend to give more deference to documents that were drafted and stored in a more formal manner, "the fact that one of these documents was under a sofa cushion doesn't disqualify it," Hines said.

"It's also perfectly OK to have a will that uses poor grammar or contains cross-outs," Hines added.

Franklin was 76 when she died in August of pancreatic cancer. At the time, lawyers and family members said she had no will.

David Bennett, who was Franklin's attorney for more than 40 years, filed the wills found this month in probate court in Oakland County, Michigan, on Monday. He told a judge that he was not certain whether they were legal under state law.

Bennett said that the wills had been shared with Franklin's four sons or their attorneys but that a deal had not been reached on whether any should be considered valid. In a statement, the estate said two sons objected to the wills.

A hearing is scheduled for June 12.

Franklin is not the first entertainment industry luminary whose will was the subject of unresolved questions. James Brown's estate, for example, has been mired in probate, family and copyright issues since his death in 2006.

And several music legends died without wills, including Prince, Amy Winehouse, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, according to a list compiled by USA Today.