Without a Will: Lessons Learned from Aretha Franklin

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard the news last month about the passing of Aretha Franklin, the legendary “Queen of Soul.” Soon after the news emerged, however, another report surfaced that Franklin had not left a will or trust. Her “intellectual property” attorney told the press that he had been “after her for a number of years to do a trust,” but that she had never gotten around to it.

Really, with a lawyer like that who needs an enemy?

What Happens Now with Franklin’s Estate?

Lets take a quick step back: We honestly don’t know whether Franklin neglected to write a will or just chose not to do so. Nevertheless, without passing judgment, here’s what to expect:

  • The courts will divide Franklin’s estate between her heirs, in accordance with Michigan state law.
  • The Franklin family finances will become public record. This is normal for any estate that goes into probate.
  • The inheritance may eventually deplete. When a celebrity or  high net worth client sets up an estate plan, the inheritance can continue to grow for heirs after death, which is why the estates of Elvis Presley, Charles Schultz and others like them continue to bring wealth to their families. In the absence of a plan, unless Franklin’s heirs get creative with their inheritance, the money will never be optimized.
  • Family disputes and lawsuits are more likely. When you don’t specify your wishes in a will or trust, it can generate disagreements among family members as to who should get what. If this happens with Franklin’s family, her estate could be tied up in the courts for months or years.

What Makes This Case Significant?

Aretha Franklin isn’t the first high-profile figure to die without a will, and she most likely won’t be the last. That said, I find this case significant for a couple of important reasons:

  1. Her death was not sudden nor unexpected. Franklin had battled cancer for years, and she could have set up a will and/or trust at any time during that battle. This begs the question as to whether she purposefully decided not to do so, or whether she actually knew her options.
  2. Franklin was not devoid of financial advisors. She had lawyers, including the one now exonerating himself to the press, who at any step of the way could have gotten past her emotional barriers and helped her make an estate plan she would have been comfortable with. I personally find it affronting to hear them now saying, “We tried to warn her.” Did they? Truly? I have my doubts.

Granted, Franklin’s financial foibles were no secret. She would only accept cash payments for gigs, she carried huge amounts of cash in a large purse, she was reportedly disorganized with her money, and she allegedly had some significant trust issues when it came to letting other people handle her money. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that she refused to do a will because of her trust issues. It’s also highly possible that in the shark-infested world of entertainment, she didn’t know whom to trust. And in that case, I can’t help but think her attorneys could have educated her and protected her—they just didn’t.

As an estate planning attorney, when clients approach me, I consider it my personal responsibility to make sure they are fully aware of their options so they can create a financial strategy that will ultimately outlive them. I don’t believe I can hold myself blameless for their choices unless I make sure they know what their choices are, and help them address the heavy emotional, philosophical and metaphysical aspects of ACTUALLY making a choice. Once they are fully informed, the decision is theirs. If they choose not to make a plan, that’s fine—no judgment. If they want the courts to handle their estate and make their finances public record, that’s their God-given right. In my view, it’s not a failure as long as it’s a legitimate choice. But I do believe it’s not really a choice unless you are properly informed.

Did Aretha Franklin choose this, or did she feel she had no choice? We may never know. But if there’s anything to take away from this, I’ll go the extra mile to make sure my clients know their choices and make sure they are counseled appropriately in this highly emotional area of law.

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