Background and the case

When the legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin died in 2018, she was believed to have died “intestate” meaning that she was not thought to have left a valid Will detailing how she wanted her estate to be distributed.

However, in 2019 her niece discovered two different handwritten “notes” which seemed to be the singer’s attempts to draft a Will and detail the division of her estate between her children and wider family. Since then, her children have been embroiled in a lengthy, and no doubt costly, court battle to decide whether either or both Wills were valid and, if so, which should determine how the singer’s estate be distributed.

The first note, which was dated in 2010 (the “2010 Will”), was found in a locked cabinet in the singer’s home, and stipulated that:

  • all four of her sons would share income from music and copyrights;
  • her second oldest and youngest children, Edward and Kecalf, would have to obtain a degree before benefitting from her estate; and
  • her main home in Bloomfield Hills be split equally between her sons Theodore (“Ted”) White II and Kecalf.

The second note, dated in 2014 (the “2014 Will”), was found under a pillow on the couch in the singer’s home. Contrary to the 2010 Will, the 2014 Will:

  • maintained that all four of her sons would share income from music and copyrights;
  • removed the clause which stated Edward and Kecalf must obtain a degree before they could inherit from her estate; and
  • stated that Kecalf and his grandchildren should inherit her Bloomfield Hills home, rather than to Ted White II and Kecalf equally.

Kecalf and Edward argued that the 2014 Will was valid and should therefore override and revoke the 2010 Will, whilst Ted White II argued the contrary.

Last week, after years of uncertainty, the case was finally heard at a Michigan court to determine which, if either, of the handwritten notes were valid. On 11 July 2023, a jury in Michigan decided that the 2014 Will was valid and was to be declared as the late singer’s last valid Will and testament, as the latest dated Will.

How could this affect me?

Although this case was heard in the US, the issues apply equally from an English perspective. In England and Wales, if you die without making a valid Will, you are deemed to have died “intestate” and all the property which forms your estate will pass according to the statutory provisions commonly known as the Intestacy Rules.

Similarly, it is important to note that if a person dies leaving a Will, but that Will is later found to be invalid for any reason such as incorrect witnessing or signing during the execution process, lack of capacity, undue influence or forgery, then that person is still deemed to have died intestate (unless there was an earlier valid Will).

As such, where a person dies intestate and their estate passes pursuant to the Intestacy Rules (please see our recent blog for further details on the Intestacy Rules here), any wishes they had as to who should inherit their estate will not necessarily be followed, so it is important to ensure a valid Will is put in place which clearly records the person’s wishes and ensures their estate is left to and for the benefit of their chosen beneficiaries.

Aretha Franklin’s sad case also demonstrates the importance of storing your Will safely and securely and ensuring it is obvious (if you have made other Wills previously) which Will is your most up to date valid one. The use of solicitors here can really help, as most solicitors’ offices will have safe storage facilities for their client’s current (and former) Wills. Further, by making sure someone you know and trust, such as your chosen executor/s, is aware of its location is also very useful for those dealing with your estate following your death. Had Aretha Franklin formally recorded her wishes in a lawyer prepared formal Will, or ensured people knew about the existence of her Wills and which Will she intended to be her last, then this could have saved her family the stress, costs and strain on family relations of a lengthy court case.

How can Edwin Coe help?

Whilst it may seem daunting to take steps to put in place a formal Will with solicitors, doing so can ensure that your Will binds your executors to distribute your estate as per your wishes, as well as eliminate any doubt as to which document may constitute your last Will. Naturally, this will also hopefully help to avoid potential family disagreements or disputes and substantive cost burdens if there is any doubt over which Will should be deemed your last, valid Will after your death.

At Edwin Coe, we pride ourselves on providing bespoke guidance and practical advice on Wills to meet clients’ estate planning aims. We are experts in dealing with complex Will planning involving varied asset classes and UK and international issues. We also offer safe storage for the Wills we draft for our clients (and any previous revoked Wills) in our firm’s archives.

If you would like further advice on the benefits of, and subsequent preparation of, your Will then please contact Alison Broadberry, Lara Persell or another member of the Private Client team.

Please note that this blog is provided for general information only. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content of this blog.

Edwin Coe LLP is a Limited Liability Partnership, registered in England & Wales (No.OC326366). The Firm is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. A list of members of the LLP is available for inspection at our registered office address: 2 Stone Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn, London, WC2A 3TH. “Partner” denotes a member of the LLP or an employee or consultant with the equivalent standing.

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