Four pages found in a couch are ruled Aretha Franklin's true will

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Four pages found in a couch are ruled Aretha Franklin's true will
Aretha Franklin performs at a benefit gala at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, Nov. 7, 2017. More than four years of family conflict over the estate of Aretha Franklin ended Tuesday, July 11, 2023, when a Michigan jury decided what her family could not — which of two hand-scrawled wills represented the famed singer’s true wishes for how to divide her estate. (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)

by Ben Sisario and Ryan Patrick Hooper

NEW YORK, NY.- More than four years of family conflict over the estate of Aretha Franklin ended Tuesday when a Michigan jury decided what her family could not — which of two hand-scrawled wills represented the famed singer’s true wishes for how to divide her estate.

After a two-day trial in a probate court in Pontiac, Michigan, a six-person jury decided after less than an hour of deliberation that a four-page document written by Franklin in 2014 — and discovered under a couch cushion at her home, months after Franklin’s 2018 death — should serve as her will.

The verdict resolved the biggest problem that had been hanging over Franklin’s estate, and sets in motion a plan for how income and assets from her estate should be divided.

“We just want to exhale right now,” Kecalf Franklin, one of the singer’s four sons, said outside the courtroom. “It’s been a long five years for my family and my children.”

After the singer died, at age 76, her family believed she had no will. Under Michigan law, her assets would have been divided equally among her four sons: Kecalf, Edward and Clarence Franklin, and Ted White Jr. The sons unanimously selected a cousin as the estate’s personal representative, a position similar to that of an executor.

But months later, in May 2019, the two handwritten documents were found at Franklin’s home in suburban Detroit — one in a locked cabinet, the other in a spiral notebook in the couch — which immediately divided the singer’s children. It also raised questions about how music royalties and other income from the estate — as well as cherished items like Franklin’s furs, jewelry and musical instruments — would be distributed.

Neither document was prepared by a lawyer, and neither lists witnesses, although the first one was notarized. Both had detailed lists of assets, along with what seemed to be extraneous information, like dismissive comments about some of the men in Franklin’s life.

In the absence of a traditionally executed will, the jury was left to decide whether the 2014 document met with the standards of Michigan law, which allow for “holographic,” or handwritten, wills.

The wills also divided Franklin’s assets differently. 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.

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. According to the document, Kecalf would receive his mother’s primary home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan — valued at $1.1 million at the time of her death — as well as the singer’s cars. According to an accounting submitted to court in March, Franklin owned a Mercedes-Benz, two Cadillacs and a Thunderbird convertible.

Kecalf and Edward favored this later document, saying that it represented her final wishes and revoked the earlier one. White, who long played guitar in his mother’s band, argued for the 2010 will; at about a dozen pages, that document is much more detailed, and has Franklin’s signature on every page.

“Yes, there’s nothing that says you can’t keep a will in a spiral notebook in your couch cushion,” Kurt A. Olson, a lawyer for White, said in his opening statement. “The bigger issue here is: What was her intent?”

According to Craig A. Smith, a lawyer for Edward Franklin, the sons have agreed to all support Clarence, the singer’s first child, who according to court papers has a mental illness.

The judge overseeing the case, Jennifer S. Callaghan, said that even though the 2014 will has been found valid by the jury, White can still make arguments that some aspects of the earlier document could be incorporated into the estate plan.

As the probate case made its way through court over the years, it became combative. Kecalf accused Sabrina Owens, the cousin initially elected to run the estate, of mismanagement. She resigned from the position in 2020, citing the “rift” that had developed in the family.

In the small courtroom this week, there was still a palpable coldness among Kecalf, Edward and Ted White Jr. No handshakes, no small talk and no eye contact were shared among the trio of adult men, who sat shoulder-to-shoulder on a bench behind their respective lawyers.

White held his wife’s hand throughout the trial. He said the brothers are stiff to one another in court but still talk otherwise.

“We’re as close as three old men can be,” White told a reporter inside the courtroom Monday.

After the trial concluded, Kecalf denied there was any bad blood between him and White. “I love my brother with all my heart,” he said.

There was no dispute that Franklin had written the documents, although there has been a debate as to whether the 2014 will was properly signed — a smiley face appears to take the place of her first initial.

“Why would anyone sign a document if it was just a draft?” Charles L. McKelvie, a lawyer for Kecalf, asked in court.

After Franklin died, her estate was valued at $18 million, according to Smith. In 2021, the estate reached a deal with the IRS to pay off about $8 million in federal income taxes; under that agreement, the estate said it would set aside 40% of revenues — including from music royalties and licensing, as well as income from projects like “Respect,” the 2021 biopic starring Jennifer Hudson — to pay federal taxes owed by the estate, as well as estimated taxes owed by heirs.

The court accounting document this year lists $4.1 million in personal property and real estate, including several homes in Michigan; $42,000 in furs; $73,000 in jewelry; companies and accounts related to Franklin’s music; and a little over $1 million in bank balances. The accounting did not attempt to estimate future earnings from her estate’s licensing rights.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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