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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - Aretha Franklin (Updated) - Episode 141


Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to the “celebrity estate planning” topic and if you listened last week, I mentioned that this week’s episode was going to be on George Carlin – well, I usually work ahead on my podcast, so I don’t get myself in a pickle (like I am in right now). Well, I’m sitting here on Friday, April 19th, 2024 and have nothing ready-to-go for Tuesday’s episode, so I was like, “Okay I either need to get an episode thrown together SUPER quickly (which researching and writing these episodes does not happen quickly!) OR I need to sort of work smarter, not harder!” Well, I chose to do the latter – if you are a long-time Legal Tea Listener, maybe those who have followed along from the beginning, you may remember I did a “celebrity estate planning” episode on Aretha Franklin. It was literally one of my first episodes. Well, since that episode released, there have been MAJOR updates in that case – so I figured I could do Aretha’s Estate again, but just add on what has happened since!

So, if you ARE a Legal Tea Listener, you can fast forward until the last 5-7 minutes of the episode to catch the updates on the case! Though, if you haven’t listened to the Aretha episode, don’t fast forward – I don’t want you to miss the circus that has been her Estate (sadly!). So here we go:

According to Aretha’s Wikipedia page, Aretha canceled a variety of concerts in 2010 to have surgery for a tumor and in 2011, she continued to cancel various concerts and appearances 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.

At the time of her passing, it was reported that Aretha Franklin passed away without a Will. However, according to PersonalFamilyLawyer.com, 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. For clarification, Sabrina would be Aretha’s niece. At that point, none of them knew any Wills existed, so the Estate got filed as an intestate probate court case, which means the person passed away without a Will. As part of her role of Executor, Sabrina was at Aretha’s house getting it cleaned out – and that’s when Wills (yes, Wills – plural) 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 in her couch cushions. It was about 9 months after 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” 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. You may be thinking … why? Well, 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.

Remember how I quoted from the PersonalFamilyLawyer.com 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 Executor (can’t say I exactly blame her!) 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 Aretha’s friend. Within these Court filings regarding the Executor role, the Judge 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 PersonalFamilyLawyer.com, ANOTHER Will was found, but it was a draft copy and never signed. After the Wills that were prepared by Aretha herself, she had hired an attorney in Detroit 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).

Interestingly, 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 wanted that Will to be carried through, so they ended up asking the the Judge to 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. Which we’ll get into that in one minute – but one last thing to note about her Estate…taxes.

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 then in-March 2021, a settlement was reached with the IRS. At this point, not a single dollar had been distributed to any of the kids – but, after this got resolved, the kids did end up getting a partial, small distribution from the Estate. That was 3 years after Aretha passed away. Wild! 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.

So where do things stand today? Well, FINALLY in 2023, after many hearings and jury trials, it was determined that the COUCH CUSHION Will was not only valid, but it was the one that would be honored. As a reminder, the couch cushion was handwritten … done in 2014. It seems it was the Will that was most current and signed. So, that one that she had an attorney in Detroit prepare – that was most current, but never signed. Now, as a reminder, that handwritten Will found in her couch cushion was the one that left things to 3 of the 4 kids – and didn’t leave anything to Clarence, the oldest. Though, according to a BBC article that discusses the updated estate details, while Clarence was not part of the Will, it said he was “not part of the dispute” but that he would “receive an undisclosed percentage of the Estate” which was agreed-upon in an agreement between Clarence’s guardian and his brothers.

Now, everything else will be divvied up in some way, some fashion between the other three – Edward, Ted Jr., and Kecalf. BBC reported that her son, Kecalf, arguably got the “crown jewel” of the Aretha’s real estate holdings because according to Aretha’s handwritten 2014 Will, she wanted him to get her mansion – which in 2018, was estimated to be worth $1.1 Million -- so nowadays, probably even more. In the BBC article that is linked in the source links, there’s a picture of this handwritten Will and you can see in her handwriting where she writes that she wanted that property to go to Kecalf. So, that wish “stood up.”

One of her other houses was to go to Edward and another to go to Ted, Jr. – but first, they were neither worth the value of the mansion that I just talked about and second, the one that Ted, Jr. was supposed to get was sold before the Estate got to this point – so his lawyer was requesting that his client get the proceeds from the sale, which was according to BBC, around $300,000. In total, Aretha had four houses – so we’ve talked about three … now, with the 4th, will likely be sold and split between her sons. It’s estimated to be worth more than $1 Million. Of course, she had cash and personal property – and OH, her music catalog, copyrights, royalties, licensing, etc. which who knows how much that makes her Estate actually worth. Nonetheless, BBC said that the whole “music” side to her Estate had not yet been resolved – it stated there was a hearing in January 2024; though, I’m going to guess that hasn’t happened yet since I looked and looked and looked and couldn’t find anything about her music rights yet – and what’s happening with them. So, I may have to do ANOTHER one of these update episodes, right? What a mess!

Alrighty, I think we’re ready to wrap this episode up. Next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases that I, or my office, have worked on -or- maybe they are just generally good things to know/be aware of so you don’t slip up and turn into a cautionary tale one day. Always good stuff on those episodes! Since I barely pulled myself together for this episode, I don’t have a sneak peak for next week yet – sorry, guys! Forgive me! Alrighty, talk to you next week – take care and be well!

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