Court trial over Aretha Franklin’s two wills highlights importance of formalising final wishes

Court trial over Aretha Franklin’s two wills highlights importance of formalising final wishes

1st August 2023

A family conflict among the four children of Aretha Franklin, sparked by two separate wills scrawled by the soul legend four years apart, reiterates the importance of investing in a professionally drafted will.

The rough documents – the first written in 2010 and locked away in a cabinet and the second penned in 2014 and found under a couch cushion in her home – were not discovered until several months after her death in 2019. Both were filled with scribbles and amendments.

She left an estate which had at one time been valued at $80 million but more recent estimations place it between $6 million and $18 million.

The documents, which have sparked a long-running conflict between the singer’s four sons, were at the centre of a recent two-day trial before a jury in Michigan. The jury ruled the later will, found under the couch cushion, as valid.

Katie Nightingale, Private Client Solicitor says that whilst such a document, a rough draft left unsigned and unwitnessed, in the UK would not carry any validity it highlighted some important messages.

“The fall-out over Miss Franklin’s death highlights the importance of a professionally drafted will. Without this, a handwritten or home-made will can be highly ambiguous and leaves everything open to interpretation and indeed conflict.

As we’ve also seen it takes time – the wills were found in 2019 – and here we are four years later and only now has the matter been settled. A situation like this where there is no formal document and legal intervention is required can rack up huge legal bills which of course eat into the estate. Not only does a professionally drafted will save your family time and anguish in trying to do right by your last wishes but it also saves a lot of money from being unnecessarily spent on legal fees.”

Katie warns that even with a professionally drafted will there was still a risk of conflict in cases where there are blended families or where estates weren’t equally or fairly divided. But there is an added layer which provides further clarification on a person’s last wishes and allows them to explain their reasons for their decision.

“Furthermore, a letter of wishes, usually written alongside a will, gives the testator or the person writing the will, the opportunity to write in their own words the reasons why they have or haven’t left part of their estate to, for example, a relative. It weighs heavily in any court and helps avoid any lengthy, drawn-out process of waiting and distress.

Another advantage of drawing up a professional will is when a person dies their family know where to come. Most legal firms now use the National Will Register – we can register all our wills so when a person dies their families are able to find out whether they made a will and how to find it.

“Finally, under The Wills Act, a will has to have two independent witnesses who have to be present when the will is signed and dated. Without this a document would not be legally binding.”

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