Don’t Try This at Home

One of my favorite TV commercials is for an app that helps people find a financial advisor. It features a man being wheeled out of his house on a gurney who says to the EMTs, “In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have tried to remove my own appendix. What was I thinking?” The voiceover goes on to say that “Some things are better left to a professional.”

While I am completely biased, I feel that preparing your will should also be left to a professional.

Take, for example, Aretha Franklin. Normally, determining where a deceased person’s assets go is the easy part – you follow the wishes in their will. Identifying, locating and liquidating the person’s assets usually takes longer, along with paying all their bills. In Franklin’s case, however, it was almost five years after the iconic singer passed before it was determined where her estate would go.

After a two-day trial in probate court in Pontiac, Michigan, a six-person jury took less than an hour to decide that a four-page document handwritten by Franklin in 2014 was a valid will. Though she died at age 76 of cancer in 2018, Franklin’s will was found by a niece in 2019 in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion in her home in suburban Detroit.

Initially, Franklin’s family believed she passed away intestate, or without a will. Under Michigan law, her estate would have been divided equally among her four sons: Kecalf, Edward and Clarence Franklin, and Ted White Jr. The sons unanimously selected a cousin as the estate’s personal representative.

But, in May 2019, the 2014 will, along with another handwritten will from 2010, was discovered in a locked cabinet. The 2010 will specified weekly and monthly allowances to each of her four sons. It also required Kecalf and Edward to “take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” to collect from the estate.

The 2014 will, however, left Franklin’s estate to Kecalf, Edward and Ted, but excluded Clarence because he was subject to a guardianship. In addition, Kecalf and his children would receive more of Franklin’s personal property. Franklin’s home in Bloomfield Hills, valued at $1.1 million at the time of her death, was to be distributed to Kecalf, as well as her cars, which included a Mercedes-Benz, two Cadillacs and a Thunderbird convertible.

Shockingly, Kecalf and Edward argued the 2014 will should be honored, as it reflected Franklin’s final wishes and revoked the 2010 version. Ted, who played guitar in his mother’s band, believed the 2010 will should have been recognized as the real will.

Surprisingly, the judge overseeing the case, Jennifer S. Callaghan, said that even though the 2014 will has been found valid by the jury, Ted can still make arguments that some aspects of the 2010 iteration could be incorporated into the estate plan. Normally, there is only one valid will – all others are void.

At the time of her death, Franklin’s estate was valued at $18 million. After paying back taxes and administrative expenses, it is now estimated to be worth $6 million.

So, to avoid the expense and family strife of administering your estate: (a) have an experienced attorney help with your estate plan; (b) keep your plan in a secure place; (c) let your family know where it is; and (d) destroy any old wills to avoid confusion.

If your plan is to write multiple wills yourself and stash them in random places throughout your house, when it comes to settling your affairs, in the words of the Motown legend, I say a little prayer for you.

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Reg P. Wydeven

Elder Law and Estate Planning Attorney at McCarty Law LLP
Hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps from a young age, Reg’s practice primarily consists of advising individuals on estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. As Reg represents clients in matters like guardianship proceedings and long-term care admissions, he feels grateful to be able to offer families thorough legal help in their time of need.

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