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Aretha Franklin Died Without a Known Will in August 2018 – Now Her Sons Are Headed for a Court Battle

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As we were preparing to publish the following story here on the Blog, a disputed will allegedly written by the late Aretha Franklin and found stuffed between couch cushions in her Michigan home has been found by a jury to be valid.

This article published in the Hollywood Reporter was one of many that broke the story this week. The newly-verified will appears to favor the Queen of Soul’s sons Kecalf and Franklin over their brother Ted White. But while the verdict appears to resolve one dispute, other details remain to be settled. As the article reports, “There still will be discussions over whether some provisions of the 2010 will should be fulfilled and whether Kecalf Franklin could become executor of the estate. Judge Jennifer Callaghan told all sides to file briefs and attend a status conference next week.”

Now here’s our original story about this sad case of another celebrity dying with an estate left in shambles through lack of planning.

Few of us are celebrities with internationally-recognized names and multi-million-dollar estates. So, when one of these superstars passes away, we take a certain morbid fascination when their post-mortem affairs turn into something of a shambles. That’s how it was with radio personality Casey Kasem, celebrity artist Bob Ross, and television comedian Tim Conway, among too many others.

Sadly, another name that was added to that sorry list of celebrities who died unprepared is legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin. We first wrote about the Queen of Soul’s passing back in August 2018 shortly after her death, when the fact came to light that she had apparently died without a valid will. But, as they say, the plot soon thickened, when not one but three handwritten wills – and possibly a fourth – were discovered among Franklin’s possessions.

In this recent story from BBC News, reporter Sam Cabral tells the sad tale of the upcoming court fight that will represent an attempt to sort this all out. For all of us, though, the lesson learned – whether your estate is large or small – is to plan well and not to leave your family in the dark about your wishes. Let’s read on about the latest chapter in the Aretha Franklin saga.

Three Wills – Including One Stuffed in the Sofa

In the months after Aretha Franklin’s death from pancreatic cancer in August 2018, BBC News reports, the common belief was that she had left no will behind, and her multi-million-dollar estate was left hanging in the balance.

“But nine months later,” Cabral writes, “three handwritten wills were found at her Detroit, Michigan home – including one wedged between the living room sofa cushions.” And that’s not all. This past April, some new information came to light in the form of never-before-heard voicemails mentioning a potential fourth will.

“A jury trial that began last week seeks to end the impasse between her heirs over Franklin’s fortune,” Cabral reports. “The trial at the Oakland County Probate Court is expected to last less than a week. A six-person jury will hear from witnesses, including the Franklin children, her niece Sabrina Owens and a handwriting expert.”

International Fame, Intense Personal Privacy

Aretha Franklin was clearly a music legend with unmatched international fame. “An 18-time Grammy Award winner, Franklin recorded dozens of chart-topping songs and was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Cabral explains.

But despite her fame (or maybe because of it), Franklin was extremely private, especially about her finances. Despite years of ill health, she resisted preparing a formal will. In the absence of a will, her homes, cars, furs, jewelry, and other assets would be equally split among her four sons after her passing at age 76. 

“Then, months on from her passing, three versions of a will were uncovered – two inside a locked cabinet, dated June 2010, and one in a spiral notebook under cushions, dated March 2014,” Cabral reveals. “Each version was scribbled by hand and difficult to decipher, with words scratched out and notes in the margins. Such a condition would make them inadmissible in most states, but Michigan law allows for handwritten wills as long as they meet other criteria.”

Step-Brothers Battle Over House, Other Assets

Emotions are high, and every person with a part to play in this situation has an opinion – not to mention a financial stake in the outcome. 

“Theodore White II – Franklin’s third child, from her brief marriage to her former manager – argues that the notarized 11-page document from 2010 should take precedence,” Cabral explains. “That version lists him as a co-executor or personal representative to the estate, along with Ms. Owens, the niece. It also calls for Kecalf and Edward Franklin, the singer’s second and fourth sons, to ‘take business classes and get a certificate or a degree’ if they wish to benefit from the estate.”

But as you might imagine, Kecalf and Edward are not happy with this arrangement. They assert instead that the 2014 version must be their mother’s primary will. “Kecalf replaces his brother as a co-executor in the four-page document, with no mention of the need for him to take business classes. He and his grandchildren would also inherit his mother’s $1.2 million gated mansion – a home described by Edward’s attorney as ‘the crown jewel’,” Cabral writes.

Aretha Franklin’s eldest child, Clarence, is not involved in the dispute, as he lives under legal guardianship in an assisted living facility in Michigan. His lawyer told the BBC that they “have reached a settlement that gives Clarence a percentage of the estate without regard to the outcome of the will contest.”

Ms. Owens, Aretha Franklin’s niece, quit as representative of her aunt’s estate early in the conflict. In a 2020 court filing, she wrote, “Given my aunt’s love of family and desire for privacy, this is not what she would have wanted for us, nor is it what I want. I love my cousins, hold no animosity towards them, and wish them the best.” She seems content to watch from the sidelines.

Voice Mail Messages Add to the Mystery and Confusion

Adding to the drama and confusion, says the BBC News article, the court in Pontiac, Michigan, heard three voice mail messages earlier this year, recorded in the months before Franklin died. In them, she discusses another will that she was preparing with an estate lawyer.

Cabral writes, “In the messages, Franklin is heard expressing certain ‘firm intentions’ from a Detroit hospital bed, but Franklin’s attorney Henry Grix testified he believed she ‘hadn’t made up her mind’ about her final wishes.” As a result of Grix’s testimony, the judge has excluded the document from consideration in the trial.

“The Franklin fortune was estimated to be worth $80 million when the star died in 2018, but more recent valuations and several years of unpaid taxes have vastly reduced that number,” Cabral writes. “According to an inventory filed in court, and seen by the BBC, the late singer’s assets are valued at just under $6 million.”

Franklin’s personal representative, Nicholas Papasifakis, has declared that he is not taking sides in the dispute or participating in the trial. His words close out Cabral’s article. “Once there has been a determination by the Court as to the disposition of Ms. Franklin’s Estate,” he writes in an email, “I will follow that determination in distributing Ms. Franklin’s assets.”

For the rest of us, stories like these should provide a loud, clear wake-up call to take action early, before illness or mental decline sets in, to get our proverbial house in order. It’s the greatest gift you can leave behind for those you love.

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(originally reported at

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