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Aretha Franklin | Trouble Ahead Without a Will

Aretha Franklin Died Without a WillThe world lost a great talent last month when Aretha Franklin, known as "The Queen of Soul" passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. In a remarkable career that spanned nearly 6 decades, Franklin was acclaimed for her hit songs, "Chain of Fools," "A Natural Woman," and "Respect."

With all of Franklin's talent and fame came enormous wealth. By one estimate, Franklin's estate is worth approximately $80 million, and it's safe to say that her recording catalog will generate many millions more in the decades to come.

For someone as wealthy and accomplished as she was, it is surprising that she neglected the most basic of estate planning strategies. For starters, she left no will and no trust. The other thing she left behind was a complicated personal life.

Franklin was married and divorced twice, and had four sons by four different fathers. And for the last thirty years, she lived with a firefighter named Willie Wilkerson, to whom she was engaged in 2012 until their wedding was called off. Wilkerson was her partner, but how much, if any, of the estate he will get will now be up to a court.

In most cases, when someone dies without a will, a situation known in Probate as "intestate," it isn't ideal but it also isn't usually a problem. A surviving spouse or child has to file a Probate, and a court has to approve the disposition of assets. That process can take a long time, but if the size of the estate is less than around $10 million, there aren't likely to be estate taxes.

When a person of Franklin's wealth dies intestate, the estate is literally opened up to the public. Anyone who believes they have a legitimate claim to the assets can show up in court to plead their case. According to Michigan Law, where Franklin's Probate case had been opened, her assets should be divided equally among her four children. Where things can get messy is when extended family, business partners, and creditors decide that they deserve a piece of the pie. In her case, her partner Wilkerson will likely seek a significant share.

Of course the entire spectacle could easily have been avoided if Franklin had written a will and set up a Trust. In that case, the Trust would be able to distribute assets without going through Probate, and would also not be subject to enormous death taxes.

The Franklin case bears watching for the drama that is likely to play out in a Michigan court, but more importantly, it should be viewed as a lesson for others. Even if you aren't worth tens of millions of dollars, estate planning is a smarter way to handle your affairs, and can often resolve issues before they create problems. I have seen many estate battles turn into legal feuds that consumed large portions of the funds in dispute. Legal fees and the IRS will surely take a chunk out of the Franklin estate, and that may leave many of her family members singing the blues.

Before you go, please let me know if you'd like to receive a free copy of my book, The Wolf at the Door: Undue Influence and Elder Financial Abuse. Just send your address in an email to me at [email protected] and I'll be glad to put one in the mail.

Aretha Franklin | Trouble Ahead Without a Will from Hackard Law on Vimeo.

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