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What is Happening with Aretha Franklin’s Estate?

08/23/2023 | Blog, Estate Planning

In late June, the trailer for the new biopic “Respect” was released. The highly-anticipated film stars singer and Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson as the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin. When the legendary R&B artist passed away in August of 2018, she died intestate, or without a valid will. Since then, her family’s legal disputes concerning the probate of her multi-million-dollar estate have continued. Here is the latest on what is happening with Aretha Franklin’s estate:

The Battle of the Wills

When Aretha Franklin died at age 76 in August of 2018 after battling pancreatic cancer, she did not have a formal will on file with her attorneys. She was survived by her four sons, Clarence, Edward, Kecalf, and Ted White Jr., and it was expected that they would inherit her estate equally. At that time, the family agreed that Franklin’s niece Sabrina Owens would serve as executor of the estate.

However, in May of 2019, Franklin’s attorney David Bennett announced that three hand-written wills had been discovered in the late singer’s home. One will was from 2014, and the other two were from 2010. The 2014 document was found in between sofa cushions. The other two documents, dated June 21, 2010, and October 20, 2010, were in a locked cabinet.  The wills appear to each divide Franklin’s estate between her sons with specific provisions for Clarence, who has special needs and resides in a group home. However, the documents vary according to who will have control of Franklin’s estate. Although Franklin was reported to owe approximately $8 million in unpaid taxes to the IRS at the time of her death, her estate and its future earning potential are still worth millions.

Change in Executor

In January 2020, Sabrina Owens petitioned the Oakland County, Michigan probate court overseeing the Franklin case to resign as executor of the estate. Owens, a long-time confidant of Franklin, was the person who found the three hand-written wills. According to her resignation letter, family conflicts began to emerge after that point. Owens stated that she had agreed to serve as executor provided there were no conflicts within the family or legal disputes. Now that both had arisen, she felt it was best for the estate and family for her to resign from the role. One of Owen’s last acts as executor was to reach the final phase of contract negotiations for the Respect film with MGM. Franklin’s son Kecalf, who had unsuccessfully petitioned to be named executor of the estate, has publicly spoken out against the movie’s making and future release.

In early March, Oakland County Judge Jennifer Callaghan appointed Reginald Turner, a Detroit attorney and president-elect of the American Bar Association, to replace Owens as a temporary personal representative for the estate. A trial to decide which will is valid and who will control the estate’s business matters is scheduled to begin in the fall.

As the Aretha Franklin case shows, estates and families can end up in probate litigation for years without clear directions and planning. At the Law Office of Alice A. Salvo, we are experienced California estate planning and probate attorneys with the knowledge and experience you need to prepare for the future and protect your loved ones and interests. Schedule a consultation today to evaluate your case and start your solution.