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The Aretha Franklin Will: What Would Your Charity Have Done?

April 16, 2024
The Aretha Franklin Will: What Would Your Charity Have Done?

(Originally published on LinkedIn on July 13, 2023)

The entertainment and probate blogs have been ablaze lately with reports of the Michigan litigation over the will(s) of the late singer, Aretha Franklin.

Ms. Franklin left two handwritten wills. The earlier one was detailed, signed, and notarized. The second one, stuffed into a notebook found under couch cushions was more summary, somewhat confusing, signed but not notarized. The signature itself was a bit idiosyncratic — a “smile” emoji replaced the initial “A” in the testator’s first name.

The beneficiaries were treated differently under the two wills, so the contest was very real. A jury ultimately decided the second instrument, the one found under the couch, should serve as her will.

Based on those facts, suppose your organization had been a beneficiary under the first will but not the second? Would you have rolled the dice or tried to drum up a settlement?

We think this one should have settled. The first will may have “looked” better, but the second appears to have been a valid holographic will under Michigan law. The signature issue seems to be a stretch. Otherwise, the second will seems solid. There is no requirement that a holographic will, or any will, be exhaustively detailed, kept in a secure location, free of puzzles or even “as good as” earlier versions.

The remedy for a sloppy will is a construction case, not denial of probate. We’re betting that the losing side here will use the threat of an appeal to get some of the gaps in the second will filled in by provisions of the first will. That’s the goal of a settlement, and it quite possibly could have occurred earlier.

The lesson here is that realism and prudence in probate litigation will often serve a beneficiary’s interest more than a “never surrender” mentality. After all, for charities, the dual goals of generating revenue while honoring the donor’s intent must always be at the forefront. Often, achieving those ends is facilitated by gracious compromise.

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