Probate for Aretha, the Queen of Soul

The Detroit Free Press published the article below about Aretha Franklin’s estate which illustrates for those of you living in California how important it is to get your estate planning affairs in order by having a Will and perhaps a living trust prepared.  If you own real property in California or have money in the bank or stock worth $150,000 or more, then seriously consider preparing a living trust in order to avoid probate.

To decide whether you can avoid probate, figure out if the value of the property (the estate) is worth $150,000 or less. To do this:

Include:

  • All real and personal property.
  • All life insurance or retirement benefits that will be paid to the estate (but not any insurance or retirement benefits designated to be paid to some other person).

Do not include:

  • Cars, boats or mobile homes.
  • Real property outside of California.
  • Property held in trust, including a living trust.
  • Real or personal property that the person who died owned with someone else (joint tenancy).
  • Property (community, quasi-community, or separate) that passed directly to the surviving spouse or domestic partner.
  • Life insurance, death benefits or other assets not subject to probate that pass directly to the beneficiaries.
  • Unpaid salary or other compensation up to $5,000 owed to the person who died.
  • The debts or mortgages of the person who died. (You are not allowed to subtract the debts of the person who died.)
  • Bank accounts that are owned by multiple persons, including the person who died.

As for Aretha, here’s her probate story:

The finances of an intensely private Aretha Franklin soon will become very public in Oakland County (Mich.) Probate Court because she left no will or trust.

Her four sons filed a document Tuesday afternoon listing themselves as interested parties in her estate. One document filed with the court and signed by her son Kecalf Franklin, and her estate attorney, David Bennett, check a box acknowledging the absence of a will.

“The decedent died intestate and after exercising reasonable diligence, I am unaware of any unrevoked testamentary instrument relating to property located in this state as defined” under the law, the form reads.

Franklin’s niece Sabrina Owens asked the court to appoint her as personal representative of the estate. The case is assigned to Judge Jennifer Callaghan.

“I was after her for a number of years to do a trust,” said Los Angeles attorney Don Wilson, who represented Franklin in entertainment matters for the past 28 years. “It would have expedited things and kept them out of probate, and kept things private.”

As Franklin’s attorney in copyright matters, song publishing and record deals, Wilson said he would have been consulted about her holdings for any estate planning purposes.

Wilson said that at this point it’s impossible to place a dollar figure on the value of her song catalog. He said she did maintain ownership of her original compositions, which include well-known hits such as “Think” and “Rock Steady.”

Under Michigan law, the assets of an unmarried person who dies without a will are divided equally among any children.

Franklin’s decision to not create a will before she died could prompt a court battle over her assets by creditors or extended family members seeking a portion of her estate. One case Wilson has been involved with is that of musician Ike Turner, whose estate is still being litigated 11 years after his death.

“I just hope (Franklin’s estate) doesn’t end up getting so hotly contested,” Wilson said. “Any time they don’t leave a trust or will, there always ends up being a fight.”

Wilson said many people, famous and not, fail to prepare a will.

“Nobody likes to give careful thought to their own demise,” he said.

Franklin died Thursday, August 16th, at home in Detroit. Her funeral is Aug. 31, 2018 at Greater Grace Temple.