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Aretha Franklin’s Oakland County Probate Litigation

Clarkston Legal March 14, 2021

Aretha Franklin’s Oakland County Probate LitigationDid Aretha Franklin Die Intestate?

When Aretha Franklin died on August 16, 2018, she left behind four adult sons, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. At the time of her death, she apparently had no will or estate plan; this is known as dying intestate. In fact, a decedent’s estate petition was filed just four days later in the Oakland County Probate Court; Ms. Sabrina Owens, Ms. Franklin’s niece and confidante, was initially appointed to serve as the personal representative of her aunt’s estate.

A personal representative in Michigan has the power and the duty to inform creditors of the estate, to wind-down, or in some cases continue, business operations, and to liquidate and distribute estate assets in accord with the decedent’s wishes. Aretha Franklin’s estate, not unexpectedly, has turned out to be a highly-complex, much-litigated, and closely-watched proceeding.

Without a will, Ms. Franklin’s four surviving sons are equal heirs at law. Michigan’s intestacy statute defaults to an even property division among siblings.

Of course, Ms. Franklin’s estate is far from simple. Although the estate has a robust income and asset profile, it also has ongoing business expenses and a multi-million-dollar tax lien, to say nothing of the mounting estate administration costs.

An Ongoing Business Juggernaut.

On behalf of her famous aunt, Ms. Owens took over the reigns of Aretha, Inc. Talent agency contracts on the East and West coasts demanded tending, re-negotiation, and execution. Several parcels of real property immediately became an expense to Franklin’s estate upon her death. Within a few months, three of Franklin’s sons began to challenge the moves of the personal representative.

With 18 Grammy awards, more than 24 Billboard top-40 hits, and a robust brand of intellectual property, Aretha’s estate is estimated to be worth over $17 million. Her estate inventory filed with the Oakland County Probate Court includes, among other assets, Bloomfield Hills real estate parcels worth over two million dollars, real property in Detroit and Memphis, TN, five companion units in the mausoleum of the Woodlawn Cemetery worth over one hundred thousand dollars, and a variety of lucrative copyrights and intellectual property rights making up Aretha, Inc.

While she was executing her duties as Aretha’s personal representative in May 2019, Ms. Owens found a series of three hand-written wills. This discovery turned the administration of Aretha’s estate upside-down.

Holographic Wills.

A hand-written will is known as a “holographic will”. Generally, a holographic will is a testamentary document with all of its key provisions written in the testator’s own hand.

In Michigan, a holographic will must be dated, with the key testamentary provisions along with the signature written in the testator’s hand. No witness to the document is required. The legislative intent of such a will is not to thwart a decedent’s testamentary wishes with technicalities.

In the case of Aretha Franklin, no will was located in the months following her death. Ms. Franklin did have long-serving lawyers that had prepared an estate plan in accord with her wishes; the lawyers had supplied the documents to Aretha, but she did not execute the estate plan. Instead, she apparently wrote-out all of her testamentary wishes in a series of detailed holographic wills; two of the holographic wills were dated in 2010 in a locked cabinet; a third will, dated in March of 2014, was located in the cushions of a sofa.

The holographic wills made specific bequests of real property to her sons, provided that her papers, CDs, awards, books and records be divided between her sons, and bequeathed her Memphis real estate to her half-sister.

Distributions of Aretha’s estate pursuant to the holographic wills would be far-different than the intestate distributions pursuant to intestate statute. This, of course, has led to the protracted litigation of Aretha’s estate.

The continuing litigation over this estate is a very good example of the importance of having an estate plan. A well-documented estate plan can eliminate the type of protracted litigation that Aretha’s holographic wills have spawned.

An Ongoing Probate Battle

With copyrights, royalties, and other intellectual property rights in play, the administration of Aretha, Inc. -especially within the context of her decedent’s estate- is a complex undertaking. The initial personal representative, Sabrina Owens, was not only Aretha Franklin’s niece and confident, she also was a long-serving Associate Director of Labor Relations at the University of Michigan.

Ms. Owens began her tenure by conducting family meetings, providing key Aretha, Inc. financial documents to interested parties, and supplying and updating information about the various Aretha Frankln business ventures. In addition, Ms. Owens had to deal with a veritable platoon of lawyers concerning Aretha’s ongoing talent agency contracts, royalties, likenesses, television deals, the hefty IRS lien, and other legal issues.

Ms. Owens’ estate administration was soon challenged by two of Aretha’s sons. They asserted Ms. Owens neglected her duties and mishandled estate business. Their challenges ultimately led to Ms. Owens’ resignation last March. She was eventually replaced by well-known Detroit area lawyer, Reginald Turner, of the Clark Hill law firm. Mr. Turner, the president-elect of the American Bar Association, was also a friend of Ms. Franklin’s; someone of high character whom the family could trust.

The sons moved the probate court for the admission of the holographic wills, and to stop the sale of the Bloomfield Hills property. Ms. Owens wanted to sell some of the properties to generate net proceeds from which the IRS lien could be satisfied. Aretha’s sons, however, asserted that

the properties were theirs via specific bequests within the holographic wills. One of her sons also objected to payment of some of the estate’s creditors before making distributions for his daughter’s [and Aretha’s granddaughter’s] college expenses.

At present, the case is heading toward a jury trial in the Oakland County Probate Court. But first, an evidentiary hearing needs to be conducted on the handwriting of the holographic wills. The opposing sides have retained their respective handwriting experts.

A Drama Series, Of Course. The National Geographic Channel is about to feature Aretha as the subject of its third season of Genius. Here is how the network describes its upcoming installment featuring the Queen of Soul:

Anthology series focusing on the untold stories of the world’s most brilliant innovators. This season of GENIUS will explore Aretha Franklin’s musical genius, her incomparable career, and the immeasurable impact she has had on music and culture.

Apparently, the contract for this series features a clause that gives the network final editing authority over the drama series. Rest assured, with all of those big city law firms working on her behalf, the singer’s estate did not give-up that type of control without a substantial pay day.

How will Aretha Franklin’s Estate Administration End?

Fortunately, like with many famous singers, the value of the decedent’s estate significantly expands after death. Given the complexity of the issues in Aretha’s estate, the sheer number of lawyers representing diverse interests, and the glacial pace of litigation during the pandemic, the matter is not likely to resolve at any point this year. Once the dust settles and the estate’s creditors have been paid, along with the platoon of lawyers, there is likely going to be a substantial estate to divide among Aretha’s four sons.

We Can Help.

If you have questions about your estate plan, or about a family member’s estate, give our office a call to discuss your options. Remember, it is never too early to begin estate planning.