Aretha Franklin Should Have Stopped to “Think” About a Will August 24, 2018

By:  E. Roger Stewart, Esq. and Jan M. Butler, OSBA Paralegal

Last week we lost a legend in the music industry with the death of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.  It has come to light that she did not leave a Will.  Ms. Franklin lacked a basic estate planning document that, for a woman of vast wealth, would have been simple and inexpensive to prepare. Now, the long-protracted process of probating her assets begins in a Michigan probate court.

This is not the first time a celebrity of such stature has died without simple estate planning documents.  Prince died in 2016 without a will and after high-drama in court, it was determined his estate passes to his siblings, both full and half-siblings.  Amy Winehouse died in 2011 without a will and a court decided the heirs of her estate were her parents, even though a documentary about the singer indicated she had a strained relationship with her father.

It is unclear how Ms. Franklin’s estate will play out in court.  The initial court filings list her sons as interested parties in the estate.  Even though the next of kin are presumed to be her four sons, and the probable rightful heirs to Ms. Franklin’s immense fortune, the lack of a will opens the door for potential unknown heirs to come forward.  A will would have clearly stated her next of kin and her family relationships.  Further, it is not known what type of relationship she had with her family.  For instance, in addition to her sons, she could have been extremely fond of her grandchildren, nieces or nephews.  Without a will (which is an intestate estate) the opportunity to include bequests to additional members of her family is lost as the Michigan rules of intestacy control.    Ms. Franklin also loses the opportunity to remember any of her favorite charities.  Bequests to charities specifically named in a will or a trust would have reduced the estate tax that will be payable, as well as honored her memory.  As the intestate rules control her estate, the opportunity to leave assets to a charity and reduce any tax is missed.

A will would have also stream-lined the probate administration.  A will gives the named Executor or Personal Representative power to act on behalf of the estate.  The powers can range from selling the property to the ability to make certain distributions to the heirs.  Without a will, the court will have to grant the Executor the power to act on behalf of the estate.  This becomes both time-consuming and costly.

Without a will, all of Ms. Franklin’s individual assets are now subject to probate administration and the public disclosure of those assets.  In addition to a simple will, a revocable living trust would have preserved the anonymity of her assets and the values.  Ms. Franklin’s long-storied successful music career certainly garnered her a multi-million-dollar estate that would also include rights to her songs.  Now the nature of those assets and the applicable values will be very publicly reported in court.  Not to mention, that any future rights and the preservation of her image are at the discretion of the court.

The thought of making a will or revocable trust is something people don’t like to think about.  Maybe it is the acceptance of one’s mortality or maybe it is the cost and possible family issues involved.  What is clear is that a lack of a will is more a burden in death than in life.

The probate administration is never swift. It may be years until Ms. Franklin’s assets are fully distributed.  Before any assets are distributed to the heirs, the estate will first have to settle with the tax man.  At a 40% estate tax rate, the estate tax bill will be substantial and the value of the assets will certainly be debated with the IRS.  This will make for a lengthy administration that could have been simplified with the proper estate planning.

Unfortunately, the final chapter of the story of Aretha Franklin is just beginning.  Sadly, it is not a chapter she has written.  That will be left to the courts.

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