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The legal battle over Aretha Franklin’s last will

Earlier this month, a Michigan court ruled that a 2014 handwritten note, discovered under a sofa cushion at Aretha Franklin’s home, was the valid last will of the world-renowned American singer.

Franklin was most notably referred to as the “Queen of Soul”. Her hit song “Respect” became an anthem for the civil rights and emerging women's movement. Since her passing in 2018, her sons have been locked in litigation regarding her million-dollar estate.

When Franklin died, it was initially believed that she didn’t have a will, meaning she died intestate. In which case her valuable estate, which is believed to include properties, cars and the rights to her music, would be split equally between her four sons.

In 2019, two documents were discovered in Franklin’s home, both of which appeared to be wills and, if held to be valid, would mean that Franklin’s estate would not be distributed in line with the intestacy rules.

One of these documents is a handwritten will from 2010, which was locked away in a cabinet. The will was signed and seems to have provided for a more equal distribution of the estate between her sons. However, it required two of them to “take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” to receive a benefit from the estate.

The other document, being the handwritten note from 2014, is a four-page document with untidy handwriting, numerous scribbles, notes in the margins and crossings out. It reportedly includes a smiley face next to the word “Franklin” and at the beginning of the document, it states: “To whom it may concern and being of sound mind, I write my will and testimony.”

The 2014 document doesn’t divide the estate as equally between the sons as the 2010 document; it gifts Franklin’s music royalties and bank funds equally between three of her sons but gifts her youngest son her main home which was valued at $1.2m.

One of Franklin’s sons argued that the 2010 will is the valid will, whereas two of the sons argued for the validity of the 2014 will, which has resulted in this drawn-out dispute and a five-year legal battle.

The impact of varying jurisdictions 

The jury in the case found the 2014 document to be the last valid will. It’s noted that in Michigan, a will handwritten by the testator can be valid, even if it’s not witnessed. This is as long as the testator has signed and dated the document.

It’s interesting to note that such disputes in Michigan are decided by a jury, whereas in England and Wales, these kinds of civil cases would be heard and decided by a judge. While the law applied in this particular dispute is governed under the jurisdiction of Michigan, it’s interesting to look at how this case may have been dealt with in England and Wales.

The requirements for a legally valid will under the law of England and Wales is governed by section 9 of the Wills Act 1837. This Act states that a will must be in writing and signed by the testator (being the will-maker) in the presence of two witnesses, who should also each sign the will in the presence of the testator.

These strict formalities apply for both professionally drafted and homemade wills, meaning that if the signing formalities are not adhered to then the will is simply not valid, no matter how much evidence there is that the testator intended for it to be their last will.

If Franklin’s estate was dealt with in accordance with the laws of England and Wales, and if her handwritten 2014 will was not witnessed, it wouldn’t have been valid.

Some countries, such as Hong Kong, Australia and some US states have “dispensing powers” for these types of situations, which enable the courts to recognise an informal document as a will so that the deceased’s wishes are still carried out, despite not necessarily complying with strict formalities. The wording of dispensing powers generally requires that the deceased must have intended the document to be their will.

In England and Wales, the courts do not have any flexibility if a will hasn’t met the requirements of section 9 of the Wills Act 1837. Therefore, it’s vital to check that a will has been validly executed to ensure it’s considered a valid will upon death. This means it’s important to instruct a legally qualified professional to prepare a will to avoid falling foul of the execution formalities. This will also assist in avoiding any uncertainties, ambiguities or unintended consequences that may arise with a home-made will.

Learn more about our expertise in dealing with Will, trust and estate disputes.