The legendary Aretha Franklin died last August, leaving an estate worth an estimated $80 million. At the time, her lawyer said that there was no will, which prompted the singer’s four sons to battle over money and control of an estate that will continue to generate millions of dollars well into the foreseeable future.
Then a search of her suburban Detroit home in May of this year yielded wills, one dating from 2014 and two from 2010. Some papers were found under the pillow of a couch, while others were in a locked cabinet.
There were notes in the margins and edited text with hard to read handwriting. To add to the mystery, one set had a notary stamp and signature, although there were no signatures of witnesses.
Holographic wills vs. attested wills here in Florida
The laws regarding a handwritten will vary from state to state. Here in Florida, a handwritten will that is not witnessed (known as a holographic will) is not considered a valid will. An attested will is, on the other hand, a handwritten document signed by the testator in the presence of two witnesses. Florida law does recognize these as a valid last will and testament.
Michigan law allows holographic wills
Unlike Florida, Michigan does allow holographic wills. Therefore, the recently found papers will undoubtedly impact the estate, but the courts will need to rule on their validity.
Working with an estate law attorney avoids strife
Franklin died after a battle with pancreatic cancer and had the same personal attorney for 40 years, so it is a mystery why the singer did not create a formal estate plan that is less open to interpretation.
The lesson learned is that putting pen to paper is an excellent start, but it is better to work with an attorney to make sure the will is witnessed or drafted as a legally-binding document. This is a more effective and less contentious method for passing along assets to loved ones.