As Aretha Franklin’s Heirs Dispute Control Of Estate, Judge Orders Court Supervision

Cozen O'Connor

Cozen O'ConnorWhen Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, at age 76, the initial belief that she left no will, followed by the discovery of three wills in her Detroit-area home, foreshadowed the potential emotional and financial rollercoaster ahead for the family.

One year later, the rollercoaster is rapidly gaining momentum. The Queen of Soul’s four sons are now battling over the appointment of Franklin’s niece as the personal representative of her estate, the validity of the wills, distribution of assets, and management of Franklin’s formidable musical legacy. At hearings over the summer, a Michigan probate court judge put the administration of the estate under court supervision, according to USA Today and other media outlets.

Questions Raised

Settling Franklin’s reported $80 million estate actually would have been simpler if she had died intestate. Michigan law dictated that, in Franklin’s case, without a will and in the absence of a surviving spouse, the estate would be equally divided among her four children.

The discovery of three allegedly hand-written wills, two from 2010 locked in a cabinet and a third from 2014 stashed under her sofa cushions, provided some clarification about Franklin’s intentions. In each of the wills, Franklin provided specific provisions to be made for her oldest son, who reportedly has special needs, and that the balance of assets would be distributed equally among her other three sons. In the event of any contradictory instructions, the latest will (the 2014 draft) would be followed.

But the documents also raised new questions, such as did Franklin actually write the wills? Franklin’s youngest son, Kecalf Franklin, convinced the judge to have a handwriting expert examine the wills to ensure his mother wrote the documents, USA Today reported.

Kecalf Franklin has also petitioned the court to oust his cousin, Sabrina Owens, as the estate’s personal representative and name him to the position instead. The move has caused Franklin’s sons to take sides, with Edward Franklin supporting Kecalf and Clarence Franklin supporting Owens. Franklin’s fourth son, Ted White Jr., also supports Owens but has asked that he be named co-personal representative, noted The New York Times.

Assets and Liabilities

The issue of who makes decisions for Franklin’s estate going forward is an important one because, like other deceased music legends from Jerry Garcia to Prince, Franklin left behind a complex array of current and future financial assets and liabilities. Handled properly, the singer’s assets could generate hundreds of millions of dollars, The New York Times reported.

For now, Owens remains the estate’s personal representative. Although she does not work in the music industry, she is reportedly seen as a capable business person and was Franklin’s choice to handle the estate. But Owens and attorneys representing the estate have their work cut out for them.

Arguably the biggest asset is the rights to Franklin’s music catalog and likeness. Managed properly, these assets could be financial powerhouses for Franklin’s heirs while preserving the music icon’s legacy for future generations of fans.

Family and friends, as well as parties representing museums and other entities, are vying for personal items belonging to Franklin. In addition, plans to release a film on Franklin’s life starring Jennifer Hudson in 2020 have stalled over negotiations with MGM, while a National Geographic production focusing on Franklin’s career is also in the works, said USA Today.

On the liability side, the Internal Revenue Service says the estate owes up to $8 million in unpaid taxes and penalties, which the estate disputes. Lawsuits have also been filed over song royalties and caregiver fees.

Franklin has only been gone a year. It’s likely that the battle to control her estate is far from over and litigation over assets and liabilities are rarely resolved quickly. Franklin attempted to head off trouble by naming a responsible personal representative and putting her wishes in writing. But when it comes to managing an icon’s musical legacy, no amount of preparation may have been enough to head off disputes.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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Cozen O'Connor

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