Estate Planning Lessons from the Queen of Soul: Do Courts ‘Respect’ Handwritten Wills?
Written by: Kate L. Wakeman, Esq.
When Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, she was believed to have died intestate (without having made a Last Will & Testament). Recently, news broke that her family found three handwritten wills – two from 2010 locked in a home cabinet and one from 2014 in a spiral bound notebook under a couch cushion – believed to have been left by the singer. Although the penmanship is often illegible, containing strike-throughs and notes in the margins of the pages, each will appears to revoke all prior wills and contemplates how Franklin would like her property distributed upon her death. Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died in Michigan, where a county probate Judge will decide later this month whether the recently discovered handwritten wills are valid.
In Florida, hand written wills are valid only if they meet all of the statutory requirements for execution of a valid will. The will must be:
- In writing;
- Signed at the end by the testator (the person making the will) or some other person in the testator’s presence and by the testator’s direction;
- Witnessed by at least two attesting witnesses who witness the testator’s signing of the will or the testator’s acknowledgment that he or she has previously signed the will or directed another person to sign the testator’s name to the will; and
- Signed by the witnesses in the presence of the testator and in the presence of each other.
It is important to note that the validity of a will is determined by state law. Although it remains to be decided whether the recently discovered handwritten wills allegedly penned by the singer are valid in Michigan, they would not be valid in Florida. The 2014 will does not appear to be signed by Franklin at the end of the document nor did two attesting witnesses sign same.
At the Elder Law Center of Kirson & Fuller, clients often come to us with handwritten wills or wills that were generated online, which often cause problems down the road during the probate process. The costs of remedying these issues typically far exceed the costs of a comprehensive estate planning package drafted by an attorney.
As a result of the handwritten wills, Franklin’s family is now involved in probate litigation. It is possible that the bulk of her assets will be spent on legal fees and court costs to decide whether the handwritten wills are valid and determine who is entitled to her property. Additionally, the Michigan court may find that the handwritten wills are not valid and the singer’s wishes regarding her property might not be honored.
This story highlights the importance of working with an estate planning attorney to ensure your estate planning documents are drafted properly so that your wishes are carried out in the event of your incapacity or death. If you need assistance with your estate planning, please contact our office to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys. The Elder Law Center of Kirson & Fuller also specializes in Medicaid and VA planning, special needs planning, guardianship, probate, and trust administration.