When Motown legend Aretha Franklin died last August, it was reported that she had no will. That all has changed as several handwritten documents were recently found in her home. The documents are purported to be in her hand. A judge will ultimately decide if the wills are valid.
Franklin passed away a resident of Michigan, where state law provides holographic (handwritten) wills as valid even if not witnessed, so long as the will is dated and the testator’s signature and the document’s material portions are in the testator’s handwriting.
Florida law, by the way, would not recognize an unwitnessed, holographic will.
Apparently three such documents were found in Franklin’s Detroit-area home, two in a locked closet for which the key was difficult to find and one in a spiral notebook stuffed under sofa cushions, according to documents filed with the Oakland County, Michigan Probate Court.
The 16 scrawled pages haven’t yet been authenticated as being in Franklin’s handwriting, attorneys for Franklin’s four sons and the personal representative in charge of the estate wrote. And even if they are real, it’s not clear that they’re valid, according to the court documents, which ask the judge to sort through it all and determine what happens next.
But if they are real, they reveal a businesswoman who was intent on making sure her sons were treated fairly. Several times across all three documents, she writes that her assets should go equally to her three younger sons and outlines detailed instructions for the care of her eldest son, Clarence, who has special needs that, to date, had never been publicly disclosed.
Clarence Franklin was born in 1955, when Aretha Franklin was just 12 years old. Aretha rarely talked about her family and personal life, and for decades, Clarence Franklin’s father has been reported to have been a man named Donald Burk, who was a schoolmate of the singer’s.
The paternity is an issue, as one of the purported wills, dated June 21, 2010 states that Clarence’s father is Edward Jordan Sr. — who’s also the acknowledged father of another of the singer’s sons, Edward, who was born when she was 14.
Little is known about Edward Jordan Sr., but Franklin was decidedly unimpressed with him. He’s described in David Ritz’s 2014 biography, “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin,” only as a “player” whom Franklin once knew.
Page six of the purported will includes this adamant declaration as part of the instructions for Clarence Franklin’s care: “His father, Edward Jordan Sr., should never receive or handle any money or property belonging to Clarence or that Clarence receives as he has never made any contribution to his welfare, future or past, monetarily, material, spiritual, etc.”
Both instances of the word “never” are underlined for emphasis.
A hearing is scheduled for June 12. What’s very sad about Aretha Franklin’s saga is that a good estate planning attorney, through the proper drafting of documents, could have ensured that her wishes would be carried out.
Assuming the authenticity of the handwritten documents, she had some very real concerns about taking care of her loved ones. Now, not only are the documents called into question, but there is so much ambiguity and conflict between the documents that no one knows who may benefit from her purported $80 million estate.
Who manages the estate? Who would serve as trustee for her special needs son? How are the funds to be invested and distributed? Who decides whether the amounts are to be held in trust or distributed outright? Estate taxes aren’t minimized in the document, nor is there any proper income tax planning.
The bottom line that estate litigation attorneys are likely to be significant beneficiaries. I would guess that hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars will be lost to attorney fees. Moreover, the litigation will take years to resolve. It truly befuddles me why someone as wealthy as Aretha Franklin, a legend who could readily afford whomever she wants as her attorney to properly plan her estate, chose instead to leave behind hand scrawled notes to take care of her loved ones.
Perhaps she didn’t want to discuss her family’s history with a stranger. We’ll never know. But it’s a real shame.
© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.