With no will left behind, Aretha Franklin’s heirs must figure out her estate issues

The Queen of Soul has been laid to rest, but without having completed her estate planning, could her family face the same trouble that other bereaved celebrity families have had to face?


Now that Aretha Franklin has been buried, her family must wade in the rocky financial waters of divvying up the reported $80 million fortune she left behind without creating a will

The Detroit Free Press reported shortly after her passing that her sons filed a document in Oakland County (Mich.) Probate Court listing themselves as interested parties in relation her estate.

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But what becomes of Franklin’s estate is now the burning question for her family. Intestate succession laws in Michigan automatically bequeaths her sizable estate equally to her four sons, Clarence Franklin, Edward Franklin, Kecalf Franklin and Ted White Jr. — who are between the ages of 48 and 63.

Franklin was unmarried at the time of death and succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Aug. 16.

According to the Associated Press, one of her nieces accepted the role of executor, and her son Clarence has special needs and is represented by a legal guardian. So far, the Franklin family have appeared to be a tight-knit clan and there doesn’t appear to be any dissenters who would file a claim for a portion of her estate. But the possibility exists that legal trouble could be ahead.

“There are often people who are marginalized or cut out — maybe they’re family members, maybe they’re friends, maybe they’re anybody who might feel that ‘Well, I deserve a share of her estate.’ There could be litigation even if she had an estate plan in place,” said Shaheen Imami, a shareholder at Prince Law Firm in Michigan, told People.

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“My expectation is that as much will be done behind closed doors as possible. It is the objective of the survivors of any deceased, whether it be Aretha Franklin or John Smith, to handle affairs as simply and quickly as you can,” Imami said. “If you can avoid court proceedings, you want to avoid court proceedings. Sometimes you just can’t do that. … In my experience, the larger the estate, the more public the figure, the greater the likelihood that there is going to be an issue.”

Don Wilson, one of Franklin’s former lawyers for almost three decades, told the AP that he tried to no avail to get the singer to out a will in place.

“I tried to convince her that she should do not just a will but a trust while she was still alive,” Wilson said. “She never told me, ‘No, I don’t want to do one.’ She understood the need. It just didn’t seem to be something she got around to.”

Other celebrities including Prince and Bob Marley also died without leaving wills behind and there were serious legal ramifications.

Prince, for example, had a $200 million estate at the time of his death and according to Forbes, his family has yet to receive any of it. A Minnesota judge named Comerica Bank & Trust as executor of his estate and since then his family has sought to remove the company from that position unsuccessfully. No money is expected to come down to the family until Comerica and the IRS figure out how the estate is to be divided. However, as much as $5.9 million in fees and expenses have been collected by the bank.

Marley, who died in 1981, subscribed to the Rastafarian faith, which prohibited him from any recognition of mortality and thus prevented him from creating a will. But that also meant decades of fights over his music publishing and estate. This has resulted in court battles in Jamaica, the United Kingdom and the United States. His wife Rita, his children, grandchildren, music collaborators and many others have petitioned for the rights to his still lucrative catalog. Eventually, Rita Marley and his family were awarded entitlement to his name and likeness, but still continue to fight over commercial use of it.

Both are cautionary tales for the black community. According to Black Enterprise, as much as 70 percent of African-Americans do not have a will or estate plan in place for the time they pass away. Because that eventually leads to probate court, legal costs can mount up. In America, people spend $2 billion annually on probate costs.

While many are is disbelief that the Franklin would not have a will in place, lawyer Laura Zwicker, said it’s pretty common. 

“People don’t like to face their own mortality,” Zwicker told the AP. “I had a client who had a $70 million real estate portfolio who had end-stage diabetes. He had plenty of conversations with me about estate planning but would not sign the documents.”