ARETHA FRANKLIN ESTATE BATTLE SCRIPPS NEWS: MORNING RUSH WITH DANIELLE MAYORAS
The Aretha Franklin family is fighting over which of the Queen of Soul’s handwritten documents is her will–the 2010 or the 2014 document? Her sons battle it out in the probate court and a jury will decide if the 2014 document is a valid will in the state of Michigan. When it comes to estate planning, Aretha’s legal mistake isn’t one that just celebrities make. This case is one of the many examples of why it is never a good idea to “do it yourself” when it comes to estate planning. Danielle Mayoras, an attorney, author, and celebrity legal expert, shares some of her thoughts on the Franklin trial with Morning Rush of Scripps News.
Scripps: Well, when the Queen of Soul passed away several years ago, she did not leave a will behind. Instead, Aretha Franklin left two wills. Now a family feud is playing out in court amongst her sons over whether the 2014 that was found in a couch cushion is valid or not. Two of her sons believe the 2014 document should control the estate, while another son believes a handwritten will from 2010 should be honored.
Both documents would lead the sons to share in her income from music and copyrights. The trial on this issue started yesterday. Joining us now is estate attorney and celebrity legal expert Danielle Mayoras. She’s also the co-author of the book Trial and Heirs, Famous Fortune Fights! Danielle, good morning to you.
These stories fascinate people because, first, it’s just another peek behind the curtain of someone incredibly famous. But then second, people ask the question: You know, you’re a big star, you have lots of money—how could you not have the notarized legal document in a drawer somewhere spelling out how you wanted your estate handled when you’re gone?
Why do we see stories like this? We saw it with James Brown and Aretha Franklin. We saw it with Prince. Big stars, lots of money, and yet all this legal drama when they die. Generally speaking, why is that?
Danielle: Well, celebrities are just like us. Often, they procrastinate. They may not trust attorneys. You know, there was something out there that Aretha wanted to get it just right and she wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do. Two-thirds of Americans don’t even have a simple will, so this is pretty typical. What’s not typical is that she put her handwritten document—with scribbles and items crossed and question marks—under a couch cushion!
Scripps: Is it common to have two wills like that, especially for someone with her star power? And what do we know about the differences between these wills? Are they coming into conflict?
Danielle: Well, one thing is we are still determining if the 2014 document is a will; that’s what the jury is deciding now. In Michigan, when we have something in writing, signed and dated by us, and we intend it to be a will, the court can perceive it as a will. But in Aretha’s case, they’re still determining if the 2014 document actually was intended by her to be a will. And there’s even a question mark if it’s a legal signature on the last page because she has her last name with a smiley face. And there’s a big question of whether they accept that as her signature or not.
Scripps: And, of course, Ms. Franklin passed away a few years ago from pancreatic cancer at age 76. And again, we have the couch will versus the cabinet will. And one is notarized, one’s not, one’s from 2010 and 2014. How messy do you think this will get now that we’re in the court stage?
And two sons fighting over their mother’s estate—their high profile, famous for decades mother—it’s millions of dollars we’re talking about. How messy is this going to get?
Danielle: Well, the messiness, luckily, is coming to an end. This battle has been going on for almost five years, and, you know, anytime you end up in the court system, it’s really a roll of the dice.
You don’t know what’s going to happen. Instead of working this out outside of the court without the jury trial, her sons decided to try their chances in the court system. And so, this should be resolved by the end of the day today. We’ll see what happens, but it is a critical decision because whoever wins this battle will likely be the executor or personal representative controlling all of Aretha Franklin’s intellectual property…signing for those book deals, movies, and everything is a big deal.
Scripps: If you were on the jury, which way would you lean?
Danielle: Ah, that’s such a tough question! I have seen the 2014 document, and it is wild. I don’t know if she intended that to be a will because, you know, there literally was something in the document that said to fill in, and that had a question mark.
I don’t know if that was intended to be a will or just some notes and she was getting her thoughts together to do a will later. I might go with the 2010 will, to be honest. That will was not only notarized, which we don’t even require in Michigan, but she did sign each of the pages, and it’s dated. That document is more along the lines of what we would expect for a handwritten will.
Scripps: How much money are we talking about here?
Danielle: Right now, there’s not much money in the estate. We’re looking at a few million dollars. But just like we’ve seen with other celebrities, like Whitney Houston, when someone passes away, they may have bankruptcy issues or creditor issues. And then, years later, we could be talking hundreds of millions of dollars. So while there are not a lot of assets in the estate right now, the future is very bright for the estate, and this will bring a lot of money in for the family.
Scripps: And she was reportedly incredibly private about her finances, so the numbers fluctuate. Still, anywhere between six and 18 million dollars is the number that is out there now. For those of us who don’t have six to 18 million dollars in our estate, and are not the Queen of Soul, just, the takeaway from this story is: have a will and get it done. But what is your best legal advice on when regular folks or any of us should get it done? I’ve heard people say, oh after you get married, do it. Or, after you have kids, do it. When you hit 40, do it. What’s your best legal advice?
Danielle: Yeah, Aretha was waiting and waiting. She was in her 70s. There isn’t an age. Everyone over the age of 18 should at least start those discussions. You know, we need those documents in place, not only for our assets but also for medical decisions.
So my advice would be just to do it. There’s always a reason to procrastinate and put it off, but there’s a better reason to do it because when we don’t get it done, whether we have millions of dollars or a very modest estate, we still want what we want, going to who we want. And the only way to do that is with good estate planning, ideally working with an estate planning attorney—so your I’s are dotted, and your T’s are crossed.
Scripps: OK, sound advice there. Alex, I’m leaving you all my pens. Danielle, thank you. Really, it’s a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for giving us some time this morning. Appreciate it. We’ll see how things wind up in court today.
Danielle: Thank you. Thank you so much.