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The 5-year Battle Over Aretha Franklin's Estate Goes to Trial

Aretha Franklin is an unfortunate example of what can happen without a professionally prepared estate plan in place. Besides the damage from the family in-fighting, the value of Ms. Franklin's estate has dropped from $80 million to just $6 million due to the legal fees, tax penalties and costly delays.

Aretha Franklin died without a known will in August 2018

When Aretha Franklin died from pancreatic cancer in August 2018, it was thought that she had left behind no will for an estate worth millions.

But months later, handwritten wills were found in a cabinet and under a sofa cushion at her home in suburban Detroit, Michigan.

A jury will now determine which of two documents should be ruled as the Queen of Soul's valid last testament.

The trial began on Monday and is expected to last less than a week.

A six-person jury at the Oakland County Probate Court will hear from witnesses, including the Franklin children, her niece Sabrina Owens and a handwriting expert.

An 18-time Grammy Award winner, Franklin recorded dozens of chart-topping songs and was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But the singer known for hits like Think, I Say a Little Prayer and Respect was intensely private about her finances and is said to have resisted preparing a formal will despite years of ill health.

When she died at age 76 the absence of a will meant her assets - including homes, cars, furs and jewellery - were to be equally split among her four sons.

But nine months on from her death, wills were discovered at her home.

One son is arguing that the papers dated June 2010 and found inside a locked cabinet are the real will.

Two other sons say a will dated March 2014 and found in a spiral notebook under sofa cushions should take precedence.

On Monday, Judge Jennifer Callaghan told jurors the only decision they had to make was whether the 2014 document can be accepted as a valid will.

Despite their differences, both documents would see the sons share revenue from Franklin's music and copyrights.

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.

Theodore White II - Franklin's third child, from her brief marriage to her former manager - argues that the notarised 11-page document from 2010 is the valid will.

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.

Meanwhile, Kecalf and Edward argue that the 2014 version is their mother's primary will.

Kecalf replaces his brother as a co-executor in the four-page document. He and his grandchildren would also inherit his mother's $1.2m (£934,000) gated mansion - a home described by Edward's attorney as "the crown jewel".

The newer document also stipulates that Franklin's gowns either be auctioned or handed over to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

Clarence Franklin, the eldest child, is not involved in the dispute. He lives in an assisted living facility in Michigan and is under a legal guardianship.

A lawyer for his guardian told the BBC they will not participate in the trial and "have reached a settlement that gives Clarence a percentage of the estate without regard to the outcome of the will contest".

The family rift had earlier driven Ms Owens to quit as representative of her aunt's estate.

"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," she wrote in a 2020 court filing.

"I love my cousins, hold no animosity towards them, and wish them the best."

Earlier this year, the court in Pontiac, Michigan, heard three voicemail messages, recorded in the months before Franklin died, in which she discusses another will she was preparing with an estate lawyer.

In the messages, Franklin is heard expressing certain "firm intentions" from a Detroit hospital bed, but attorney Henry Grix testified he believed she "hadn't made up her mind" about her final wishes.

The judge has excluded that document from consideration in the trial.

The Franklin fortune was estimated at $80m when the star died in 2018, but more recent valuations and several years of unpaid taxes have vastly reduced that number.

According to an inventory filed in court, and seen by the BBC, the late singer's assets are valued at just under $6m.

Nicholas Papasifakis, who currently serves as Franklin's personal representative, said he is not participating in the trial and is not taking a side in the dispute.

"Once there has been a determination by the Court as to the disposition of Ms Franklin's Estate," he wrote in an email, "I will follow that determination in distributing Ms Franklin's assets."


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