Iconic artist Aretha Franklin's estate, faced controversy when a second handwritten will, discovered in the cushions of her Detroit home, conflicted with her previously secure 2010 will. The dispute over the validity of these wills led to an expensive jury trial that ultimately upheld the 2014 handwritten will, despite its challenging handwriting, scribbles, and an unconventional signature of just "A" and a smiley face. This case sheds light on the differing probate laws across U.S. jurisdictions, particularly highlighting Michigan's acceptance of holographic wills, while states like Florida maintain stricter standards. The lesson learned is that individuals should consider executing a formal will with witnesses to avoid potential conflicts and costly litigation or explore probate avoidance options like revocable living trusts with the guidance of an estate planning attorney.
Icon Aretha Franklin had executed two wills before she passed, but the later will was challenged in an expensive jury trial.
The second will was found in a couch, handwritten, difficult to read, contained scribbles, and was signed with only an “A” and a smiley face without witnesses, but was nevertheless found to be valid under Michigan law.
Standards for will validity vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The “couch” will would not have been admissible in many jurisdictions including Florida, which have strict standards.
Popular artist and icon Aretha Franklin left a sizeable estate to her four sons in 2018 when she passed, but conflict and controversy arose when a second, handwritten will, was allegedly found in the couch cushions of her Detroit home in 2019.
There were now two conflicting wills, one dated from 2010, which was stored securely under lock and key, and one dated from 2014, which was found in the couch. Franklin’s sons then disagreed about which will was valid and therefore, they disagreed on how her estate should be distributed. The disagreement led to an expensive jury trial, held five years after her death, in which the jury found that the 2014 will, with its scribbles, difficult to read passages, and signature with an “A” and a smiley face, was nevertheless valid under Michigan law.
The case highlights legal distinctions in the probate process and standards across different United States jurisdictions.
Michigan probate law, at the time executed by Franklin, allowed holographic wills, which are those documents handwritten by the testator (the person making the will for themselves), signed by the testator, and dated, but not necessarily witnessed by any third party, as long as the proponent of the holographic will can establish its validity. If other interested parties, such as other beneficiaries under the will, dispute its validity, costly litigation often ensues.
In Florida, for example, a will must be executed with strict formality and unwitnessed holographic wills, like the one found in Franklin’s couch, are not admissible. While a handwritten will may not be invalidated just because it was handwritten, among other Florida requirements a will nevertheless must be signed at the bottom and before two witnesses to be admissible in probate proceedings. If not accompanied by a validly executed and notarized witness affidavit, one or more witnesses must go before the probate court and attest to the will’s validity.
This stricter standard often leads to the inadmissibility of documents in which the decedent, the person who passed, intended to become their last will and testament. The effect of this is that when property of the decedent is probated, those intentions are entirely disregarded and property of the estate passes in accordance with state law as if there was never a will in the first place.
The argument for the strict standard, as opposed to the more relaxed admissibility standard like Michigan, is that the hard rule helps prevent the introduction of fraudulent wills and personal notes that were never intended to be formalized into a final testament for one reason or another.
The lesson from Franklin’s probate is that even in those jurisdictions which admit holographic wills, a testator should nevertheless execute a formal will with witnesses in accordance with state law to help prevent conflict and costly litigation in the future. Further, with the assistance of an estate planning attorney, a testator can take the steps necessary to attempt to avoid the need for probate altogether, which in Florida can be relatively costly and time consuming, with effective probate avoidance tools such as revocable living trusts.