When the legendary Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, her family – and lawyers – believed she never had a will. When the family opened a probate of her estate in Michigan last fall, Franklin’s four sons each expected to receive an equal share of her estate under Michigan’s laws of intestacy (i.e., the laws governing the distribution of property of people who die without a will). Months later, these expectations were upended – along with the harmony among her children – when a series of handwritten wills were discovered both in a locked cabinet and between the couch cushions in her home.
Now, Franklin’s children are embroiled in a dispute over the distribution of her estate, and a judge is being asked to determine the validity of the found wills, which do not leave the estate to her kids in equal shares. What went wrong, and what can we learn from yet another very public estate dispute among a celebrity’s family members?
- Let your family know you have a will. Franklin’s children appear to have had no idea that she’d ever written a will – much less several. Her family opened a probate for her estate under the assumption that no will existed. When a will was discovered, and its terms directed a different distribution of her assets than the default under state law, this new development understandably created conflict among her children. A simple way to avoid the conflict that resulted would have been for Franklin to have communicated to her family at the very least that she had a will.
- Let your family know where you keep your original will. Telling your family that you have a will is just the first step; they also need to know where to find it. A will is effective in directing the distribution of your assets after you die only if it is found and admitted to probate.
- Store your will in a secure but logical location. It appears to have taken Franklin’s family months to discover that she had stashed her handwritten wills between her couch cushions and in a locked cabinet. The greatest surprise in discovering the will in the couch cushions is that it was discovered at all.
- If you store your will in a lockbox, safe deposit box, or home safe, make sure that someone other than you can access it. While it is no surprise to find a will among valuables in a locked cabinet, after Franklin’s death it may well have taken her family months to get around to opening the cabinet. It may not have been a priority if nobody knew what was inside it. It is also possible that nobody knew where to find the key and a locksmith was required to gain access. Accessing a bank safe deposit box when the only person authorized to access it is deceased can be an expensive and frustrating process that often requires a court order. This scenario can easily be avoided by storing your will somewhere that someone else can access. This can be accomplished by sharing the key or combination to a lockbox or safe, by adding another person on to the bank’s records governing the safe deposit box, or simply by storing your will someplace that does not require a key, combination, or identification to access.
Letting your family know that you have created a will and where you plan to store it, storing your will in a logical place, and making sure you are not the only person who can access it demonstrates respect for your loved ones. Questions about storing a will? We can help.