Aretha Franklin’s Estate: How It Would Work in New Jersey and New York

Perhaps you have heard that recently a Michigan jury ruled that the handwritten will found under Aretha Franklin’s couch cushion to be valid.  While Franklin had another will from 2010 that was kept under lock-and-key, the jury found that the 2014 will from under the couch cushion was valid and therefore superseded the 2010 will.

Here, we will discuss what exactly happened in the Aretha Franklin case and we will examine how the ruling may have been different if Franklin were a New Jersey or New York resident.  It is worth noting that the legal battle over Franklin’s estate lasted for some five years.  Regardless of how we believe the courts may have ruled in New Jersey or New York, it is recommended that you speak with an estate planning attorney to create and properly store your will.  Handwritten wills are the subject of great skepticism which can lead to years of fighting and legal issues.  

The Aretha Franklin Case

Aretha Franklin was a singer-songwriter who was dubbed as the “Queen of Soul.”  Her influence on music as a whole can still be observed today.  Franklin died in 2018, in Detroit, from pancreatic cancer.  Her death, however, was just the beginning of one of the most curious and high-profile estate planning issues in recent memory.  

Franklin’s relatives had initially believed she died without a will.  In 2019, her relatives found two wills in her home.  One, from 2010, was kept under lock-and-key.  This document was roughly 12 pages and had her signature on each of the pages.  The 2014 will was found in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion.  The 2014 will was considerably less detailed but was nevertheless signed by Franklin.  Neither will had been signed by any witnesses, but the 2010 will had been notarized.

The main difference between the contents of these two wills was that the 2010 will required two of Franklin’s sons, Kecalf and Edward, to obtain a business degree or certificate before they  could inherit from the estate.  The 2014 will contained no such condition.  Kecalf and Edward favored the 2014 will while Franklin’s son Ted favored the 2010 will.  

There was no debate as to whether these wills were written by Franklin.  The main question here was whether these scrawled writings that were kept in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion constituted a valid will in the state of Michigan.  The jury in the case ultimately decided that the 2014 will was valid and therefore enforceable.

As odd as it may seem, the fact that the will was handwritten in a notebook and stuffed under a couch did not carry much negative weight in this case.  While it may seem strange on its face, ultimately those facts did not have a material effect on the validity of the will itself.  

What Is a Holographic Will?

A holographic will is a will that is handwritten by the will’s creator, also known as the testator.  Here the will is not typed and not drafted by an attorney.  Different states have different laws governing the validity of holographic wills.  In Michigan, where Franklin died, a holographic will is valid if it:

  1. Is handwritten;
  2. Signed by the testator; and
  3. Signed by two or more witnesses

Even when no witnesses sign the will, the holographic will can still be deemed valid if the will is written in the testator’s handwriting.  In this case, there was no question as to whether this was written in Franklin’s handwriting.  All parties involved seemed to agree that both wills were indeed written by Franklin.

How May a Jury Have Ruled in New Jersey?

In New Jersey, the rule governing holographic wills is essentially the same as the Michigan statute.  New Jersey requires the will be handwritten, signed by the testator, and signed by two or more witnesses.  New Jersey also may admit a holographic will that was not signed by witnesses if the will can be proven to be in the testator’s handwriting.  

Due to the overwhelming similarities between the New Jersey and Michigan statutes, it is likely that a jury in New Jersey could have ruled the same way.  Franklin’s will was handwritten.  There was no debate about that.  Franklin signed both wills, the 2014 signature contained a smiley face which was common for her.  Neither will was signed by any witnesses by both New Jersey and Michigan can forgive that oversight if the will is written in the testator’s handwriting.

The 2010 will, and more importantly the 2014 will, satisfy these statutes.  While it is impossible to ever say exactly how a particular jury will rule in a given case, there is a good chance that a New Jersey jury may have ruled the same way that the Michigan jury did. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the costs and delays associated with litigating the validity of this will could have been avoided had Franklin consulted with an attorney in her home state prior to her death.

How May a Jury Have Ruled in New York?

The New York statute for holographic wills is very different from the laws in New Jersey and Michigan.  In New York, for a holographic will to be valid, the testator must be:

  1. In the armed forces, actively serving in an ongoing war;
  2. A person who serves with or accompanies an armed force actively engaged in an ongoing war; or
  3. A mariner at sea

Even in these cases, the wills written by people in these categories will only be effective for 1-3 years after they return.  In New York, the purpose of this statute is to allow those who are facing imminent death to quickly write out their last wishes.  This statute discourages, and outright disallows, many people from creating holographic wills.

Holographic wills are viewed skeptically because of their informal nature.  Perhaps New York lawmakers believe that holographic wills are more conducive to undue influence or fraud.  Whatever the reasoning may be, New York has much more narrow circumstances under which a holographic will may be considered valid.  

To that point, it is likely that Franklin’s 2010 will and 2014 will would have both been deemed invalid.  Both were handwritten, thus making them holographic, but neither of them was created under the permissible circumstances.  At no point in 2010 nor 2014 was Aretha Franklin engaged in the duties of an active armed forces member who was overseas in combat, nor was she a mariner at sea during that time.  This would likely mean that both of her wills in question here would be deemed invalid.

If the wills were to be deemed invalid, then her estate would have followed New York’s intestacy laws.  Under New York’s intestacy laws, it is likely that her four sons would have evenly split her entire estate.  

Again, it is impossible to guarantee that a jury would rule in a certain way, but given the language of the New York holographic will statute, it is likely that a New York jury would have found that both wills were invalid.

How Does This Apply to You?

This can apply to many people as a cautionary tale.  While taking the time and spending the money to create a will may seem like an undesirable task, it is vitally important to get it done.  Sure, there are some instances where a holographic will may ultimately suffice, but keep in mind that Franklin’s holographic will took five years to sort out.  By having a properly drafted and executed will, you can save your heirs the time and trouble of taking years to prove your will’s validity.  If you are considering creating a will, contact our estate planning team at Rosenblum Law.  We would be happy to explain the process to you and let you know all the benefits that come with a professionally-drafted estate plan.  For a free consultation, call 888-235-9021.

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