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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - Aretha Franklin - Episode 17

Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to “estate planning of the rich and famous” where we chat about celebrities and their estate planning. The last two episodes of “estate planning of the rich and famous” we talked about Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant – and as you may remember, both did a relatively okay job. They both slipped up and each had a mistake – but from a 50,000 foot overview, they could have done way worse!

With today’s episode, we are coming to a screeching halt on halfway decent estate planning because today’s spotlight is on someone who did not do a fabulous job at estate planning. And … Who is that someone? It’s Ms. Aretha Franklin – the Queen of Soul, but NOT the Queen of Estate Planning…

Before I dive in, I have to confess something – As I started writing this episode, I was working from home … and the house was quiet, I tell ya. My basset hounds were snoozing, and it was so quiet, that I wanted to join them! I was like, “Oh! Why don’t I turn on some Aretha Franklin while I write this?!” And I did just that – it was the greatest and worst idea ever. Greatest because it instantly bettered my mood and everything – I felt like I was at a wedding or something, and all I really wanted to do was jump up and dance! Worst because this episode probably took longer to write than others since I was busy bobbing my head and dancing in my seat.

Back to Aretha … and less about my dancing …

According to Aretha’s Wikipedia page, Aretha canceled a variety of concerts in 2010 to have surgery for a tumor and later in 2011, she denied that it was pancreatic cancer; though, she continued to cancel various concerts and appearances in 2011 due to medical treatment. It was not until actually 2013/2014 that she really got back to live performing.

In February 2017, Aretha stated that 2017 would be the final year of touring for her. Really, the next thing we hear is that in mid-2018, Aretha was “gravely ill” and under hospice care at her home in Detroit, Michigan. Then, on August 16, 2018, Aretha Franklin passed away. It is reported that her official cause of death was a “malignant pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.” And actually according to the Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation, there are differences between pancreatic cancer and the type of tumor Aretha had – a link to the Foundation’s page, which explains the differences can be found in this episode’s source links on our website.

At the time of her passing, it was reported that Aretha Franklin passed away without a Will. However, according to, MULTIPLE (some were even handwritten and barely legible) got discovered since her passing – which has ultimately created a big ol’ fight between Aretha’s four children, Clarence, Edward, Ted White, Jr., and Kecalf. The PersonalFamilyLawyer website perfectly describes the unfortunate situation:

The legendary singer’s haphazard planning has pitted brother against brother, exposed dark family secrets, and lost millions of dollars to the IRS. And perhaps worst of all, while the legendary singer was notoriously private, all of this has played out in the news headlines for the whole world to see.”

So after Aretha’s passing, but BEFORE the Wills were discovered, Aretha’s sons agreed to have their cousin, Sabrina Owens, serve as the Estate’s Executor (which technically should be Executrix, since she’s a female … but I digress…). For clarification, Sabrina would be Aretha’s niece. At that point, none of them knew any Wills existed, or even quasi-Wills existed, so the Estate was filed as an intestate probate case, which means the person passed away without a Will/estate plan. The intestacy laws state that Aretha’s Estate would be distributed equally to her four children.

As part of her role of Executrix, Sabrina was at Aretha’s house getting it cleaned out – and that’s when the Wills were discovered. According to Hour Detroit Magazine, two Wills were discovered in a locked cabinet and were dated in 2010 – and another one, which was dated in 2014, was found on a notebook under her sofa cushions. I can’t even make this stuff up, people! It was about 9 months after Aretha passed away, and the intestate probate case had already been filed. So, I’m sure Sabrina had a moment where she thought to herself “What in the absolute heck now happens?!”

What was crazy (like things could get any more crazy!) was that each Will contained different provisions. Like, the 2010 version provided for all four sons in “regular allowances” (huh?) and designated Sabrina, her niece, and her son, Ted, as Executors. However, the 2014 version leaves her assets to her three youngest sons and left it up to them to distribute to their oldest brother, Clarence.

Side note, I see clients do this often. You see, Clarence is “special needs” and lives in a group home in Detroit. I’m sure Aretha was wanting to protect Clarence’s inheritance from negatively impacting him – so she thought the other boys could just take care of it. Let me say it loud and clear – there are multiple ways that individuals with special needs can inherit that will NOT negatively impact them, but still allow you to leave their inheritance to them for their benefit. So Aretha could have done that – instead, the 2014 Will version left everything to her three youngest kids “trusting” they’d share it with Clarence. Let’s see how well that plays out… thankfully, he’s represented by a court-appointed attorney, so hopefully he’ll be well-advocated for.

Remember how I quoted from the article earlier that perfectly encapsulated the unfortunate situation – and how I said all of this “exposed dark family secrets.” Well, one of the Wills found disclosed something known to barely anyone – Aretha gave birth to Clarence when she was a mere 12 years old. Up until its discovery, it was reported that Clarence’s father was a friend of Aretha’s named Donald Burk. Actually, one of the Wills disclosed that Clarence’s father was Edward Jordan, Sr., who was the father of Aretha’s second child, Edward. Aretha was not a fan of Edward Jordan, Sr. – it’s reported that Aretha put in her Will:

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.”

Between all of this drama, Sabrina, the niece, decided to resign as Executrix and said that “the family feud is not what Aretha would have wanted for us.” After Sabrina resigned, the Court appointed Attorney Reginald Turner, who happened to be a friend of Aretha. Within these Court filings regarding the Executor role, the Judge also scheduled a hearing for June 2020 to begin the conversation about whether any of those Wills would be valid and govern Aretha’s Estate.

And wouldn’t you know … according to, ANOTHER Will was found, but it was a draft copy and never signed. After the three Wills that were prepared by Aretha herself, she had hired an attorney in Detroit named Henry Grix in 2017 to help her with estate planning – though, like I said, it never got finished and signed. The contents, however, of the draft copies seem like a combination of what the “other” Wills have stated – it stated her Estate went equally to the boys, but created a Trust for Clarence, the special needs child (which is exactly what I would have done). Sounds like she was on the right track…

Though, possibly in good news for the Estate, there is a law in Michigan that actually will allow “a deceased person’s intent to be recognized even if the documents are defective in execution.” The lawyers for Clarence and Ted want that Will to be carried through, so they’ve petitioned the Court to see if the Judge will allow it. It got set for a hearing for August 2021 to determine of the FOUR Wills that had been discovered, which, if any, are going to be the one that stands and governs.

This episode is so wild, I tell you! And I’m running out of time now – but I’m noooot done. So according to the Detroit Free Press, it was also discovered that Aretha’s Estate also owed lots o’ money in unpaid taxes, interest, and penalties – to the tune of nearly $8M. Yikes! As time passed, the Estate started chipping away at the balance owed to the IRS – and come-March 2021, a settlement was reached with the IRS (which I won’t bore you with the numbers – mainly because of time!) – but this also go the Estate to a point where a payment was finally made to the children … oh you know, 3 years after Aretha passed away. The first time any of them saw a peep of their inheritance. But hey – they also were fighting, so it was partially their fault too.

As we sit today, the Estate is still not cleaned up – I actually, after looking for probably far too long, cannot see that the August 2021 hearing happened to determine what Will, if any, will stand and govern in the Estate. It either did and had no outcome -or- it got continued. I looked up the Court case in Oakland County, Michigan -- and I see there is a hearing set for December 6, 2021—so I wonder if the August 2021 hearing got continued to that December date. I bet it did. Hence, why there really is not anything new or updated on “which Will” stood up. So I guess we sit here and we wait because there is more to come on Aretha’s estate…

Well, there we go! We can learn a lot from ol’ Aretha – you know how I try to utilize our Legal Tea hashtag, #DoYourEstatePlan, often on episodes. After all, it IS important to #DoYourEstatePlan, but can we agree that we aren’t going to #DoOurEstatePlan so often AND on our own, that it confuses … everyone. I often tell clients, if you leave your estate behind a mess or if you leave your people (beneficiaries and executors and trustees) confused, you know who wins? The lawyers. The IRS. Two “things” that you don’t exactly want to win… or at least, I don’t! You can do you – you do you, boo! I choose to make sure my estate plan got created (yep, it’s done!), stays updated, and doesn’t leave my people confused.

Alrighty, let’s wrap this episode up! Well, next week’s topic is a cautionary tale – a real-life case I’ve personally worked on. During that episode, we’re going to be talking about a case where the estate plan was missing – like the documents could not be found. And what the heck happens then?! So yeah, stay tuned for that one. Until then, Legal Tea Listeners…take care and be well!


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