Since Aretha Franklin died in August, her family has operated with a simple understanding about her estate: Because she was believed to have had no will, Franklin’s assets and income would be divided equally among her four sons, in accordance with Michigan law.
That structure, and the peace it preserved within the family, has been upended by the discovery this month of a series of handwritten wills that could significantly alter the estate, replace the executor and change each son’s inheritance. The scrawled documents — found in a locked cabinet and under the sofa cushions of Franklin’s home in suburban Detroit — were submitted to a probate judge on Monday to determine whether they qualify as valid wills.
But the possibility of wholesale changes to the estate has already stirred divisions among Franklin’s sons, with two of them supporting the most recent will, dated in 2014, and two opposing it, according to lawyers involved in the discussions. At a closed meeting on Wednesday, the lawyers representing the estate and the sons discussed a pending property sale, and were urged by a staff attorney for the court to hire a mediator to help negotiate their disputes and avoid costly litigation.
“We are trying to have cooler heads to resolve these issues, trying to come to an agreement as to how they can fairly resolve this,” said David J. Bennett, a longtime lawyer for Franklin who now represents the estate.
The judge, Jennifer S. Callaghan, will consider the wills at a hearing scheduled for June 17.
The extent of the disagreements among Franklin’s sons is still unclear. Two of them, Kecalf and Edward Franklin, support the 2014 will, but have declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the estate.
Mr. Bennett, and lawyers for Kecalf and Edward, said the lawyer and guardian representing Franklin’s first child, Clarence, has not been willing as yet to embrace the 2014 document as a valid will. That representative, Jon B. Munger, did not respond to requests for comment.
The reasons for Mr. Munger’s objection are not public, but Clarence Franklin, whom Franklin had when she was 12, would inherit significantly less under the 2014 will.
If no will is recognized, he would receive an equal share, one quarter of Franklin’s estate. But the 2014 document splits the real property she owned between Kecalf, Edward and the fourth son, Ted White Jr., without allocating anything to Clarence, who is 64 and lives in a group home.
Those sons, under the will, would also each receive income from Franklin’s music royalties, and it is unclear whether Clarence would too. It is also unclear how Franklin intended to divvy up other assets, such as cash.
The document does spell out that the other sons are to check on Clarence once a week and “oversee his needs.” But the legibility of Franklin’s handwriting in that section makes it difficult to fully gauge what her plan had been.
The 2014 will also names Kecalf, Franklin’s youngest son, as executor. He would replace Sabrina Owens, a niece, who was appointed to that role last year by the court with the unanimous support of the sons.
Ms. Owens is seen as a capable and responsible businesswoman, who has given the estate a sense of stability. One of her first acts was to approve the release of “Amazing Grace,” a long-delayed concert film that, since it came out late last year, has awed critics and fans.
[Read Wesley Morris’s take on “Amazing Grace.”]
Under the 2014 will, Ms. Owens would receive a flat inheritance of $200,000, but would apparently lose her position as the estate’s primary administrator. Her name was crossed out in a section in which Franklin named Kecalf executor. (Even more complicated, Franklin also added a blank space to that part, adding the words “fill in,” with an arrow.)
The estate, whose value has not been disclosed, has been pursuing other entertainment deals, in part to pay down debt and to handle an $8 million claim by the Internal Revenue Service. (Mr. Bennett said in December that the estate had already paid $3 million in back taxes.) Among those projects are an episode of the National Geographic TV show “Genius” devoted to Franklin and a biopic starring Jennifer Hudson.
Even if the 2014 will is admitted by Judge Callaghan, a settlement among the heirs may be necessary to avoid legal challenges, and to align the heirs on a plan for managing the estate’s assets and businesses.
Craig A. Smith, a lawyer for Edward Franklin, said the purpose of the negotiations was “to lay out a plan of administration that the parties agree on.” He added: “What you sell, what you keep — the big plan.”
The case has highlighted the complications faced by the estates of celebrities who leave no will. Prince, for example, died three years ago, but his estate has faced dramatic business conflicts and complaints from heirs about its management.
A clear agreement among Franklin’s sons might allow her estate to avoid such problems.
“Rather than go through what could be expensive and lengthy litigation,” said Melanie B. Jacobs of the Michigan State University College of Law, “it is not surprising that the potential heirs would meet to see if there are points of agreement and if, in fact, there is agreement about the validity of one or more of the wills.”
Just why Franklin decided to write her own wills — and why she apparently told no one about them — is still a mystery. Mr. Bennett and two other former lawyers for Franklin said they tried to persuade her numerous times to plan her estate.
“I voluntarily wrote wills and trusts in preparation for a talking point with Aretha,” Mr. Bennett said. “The terms were mine with general concepts regarding her after we had general conversations. We never got further than that.”
The question is even stranger since it seems that Franklin had at least some familiarity with the probate process. According to state records, she served as a personal representative in the estates of her father, C.L. Franklin, who died in 1984, and her sister Carolyn, who died in 1988. Neither had a will.
But she was also known to be highly protective of her finances, and the documents show a long list of former lawyers, many of whom she has no kind words for. David Ritz, the author of a biography, “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin,” said that spontaneity was simply part of who she was.
“The idea that on any given rainy night in Detroit, she sat down with a yellow pad and wrote this out, thinking of her mortality — that seems to me like the Aretha that I knew,” Mr. Ritz said.
That decision, however, may have long-lasting legal ramifications for her family.
“Someone will have to decide it all if we don’t agree,” said Juanita Gavin Hughes, a lawyer for Kecalf Franklin. “Either a judge or a jury.”
Ben Sisario covers the music industry. He joined The Times in 1998, and has contributed to Rolling Stone, Spin, New York Press and WFUV. He also wrote “Doolittle,” a book about the Pixies. @sisario
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