A court has found that a handwritten document found in Aretha Franklin’s sofa is a valid Will. Three of her four sons had been involved in an inheritance dispute following her death, which culminated in a court hearing to decide the validity of two handwritten documents.

Sometime after Aretha Franklin’s death in 2018, her niece found two papers while searching her home for documents. One was dated 2010 and the other 2014 and each named different executors.

The 2010 document, found in a cabinet, named her son Theodore White II as her executor, along with her niece. It stated that her two other sons, Kecalf and Edward Franklin, would only inherit if they took business classes and obtained a certificate or a degree.

The 2014 note was under a sofa cushion and in this one, Theodore White II’s name had been crossed out as executor and another son, Kecalf Franklin was included instead.

The later Will also left her main home, a gated mansion, to Kecalf and her grandchildren.

The 2010 paper was signed and notarised, while the 2014 one was not. The 2014 note had a smiley face instead of a signature.

Her eldest son, Clarence, was not involved in the case. He has special needs and lives in an assisted living facility. A settlement was reached before the court case that gave him a percentage of the estate.

Her niece stood down from her role as executor in 2020, not wanting to be involved in the dispute.

Court decision

The case was heard by a jury, which decided in favour of the later Will that more heavily favoured Kecalf and Edward. As a co-executor, Kecalf would have control of the estate. He and his brother would no longer have to comply with the condition requiring them to secure a business certificate or degree.

Avoiding a family dispute

The law in the US is different to the UK and a similar case here would probably have had a different outcome, particularly taking into account that the 2014 document was not signed, just marked with a smiley face. It is also the case that a Wills dispute would not be decided by a jury in the UK. The state laws in Detroit, where the case was heard, allow homemade wills provided certain conditions are met.

Unfortunately, Wills and inheritance disputes in the UK are on the increase. There are several steps you can take to reduce the risk of a disagreement arising over your estate.

  • Make sure you have a professionally drafted Will that clearly expresses your wishes
  • Review your Will regularly, at least every five years and in the event of any major life changes such as the birth of a child or a substantial change in the size of your estate
  • Take legal advice if you want to cut someone out of your Will; they may be entitled to make a claim against your estate if they are a spouse or child or you have been supporting them financially
  • If you appoint more than one executor, make sure that they get along
  • Discuss any gifts or bequests that may surprise your family in advance so that you can explain why you have made the decision you have
  • Make sure you destroy any old Wills; if a newer Will is invalid for any reason, an older Will could take effect
  • Have a new Will drawn up if you marry – any existing Will automatically becomes invalid on marriage unless it was drafted in contemplation of your marriage
  • Ensure that your Will is properly signed and witnessed. The rules around this are strict and mistakes could mean that your Will is not valid

If a dispute does arise after someone’s death, you are strongly advised to speak to a solicitor as soon as possible. Early legal intervention can often prevent a situation from degenerating and finding a solution promptly will be both cost-effective and reduce the risk of permanent family rifts.

If you would like to speak to one of our expert estate planners, ring us on 01634 353 658 or email us at rob@pembrokewillwriters.com