A Handwritten Note Aretha Franklin Stashed in a Couch Is Her Legal Will, Jury Says

The longstanding disagreement over how to divide up Aretha Franklin’s estate has finally been settled. On Tuesday, a Michigan jury ruled that a four-page handwritten note from 2014 that the singer stashed in a couch was her legally binding will, rather than a different handwritten will from 2010.

A six-person jury in a Pontiac, Michigan probate court rendered a verdict after less than an hour’s deliberation. Franklin apparently wrote the will in 2014 but it wasn’t discovered until months after her death in 2018. 

“It’s been a long five years for my family and my children,” said the singer’s son Kecalf Franklin, according to New York Times. “We just want to exhale right now.” 

The court decision now sets in motion a plan for how Franklin’s income and assets should be divided among her loved ones. 

Upon the singer’s death at age 76, it was believed by her family that Franklin had no will. If that had remained the case then under Michigan Law, her assets would have been divided equally among her sons: The aforementioned Kecalf, Edward and Clarence Franklin, and Ted White Jr.

However in May 2019, months after her death, two handwritten documents were found at Franklin’s home in Detroit, which immediately caused chaos and division among the singer’s children. 

The documents concerned such thorny issues as how Franklin’s music royalties and cherished items like jewelry, furs, and musical instruments would be distributed.

The two documents found were not prepared by a lawyer, however the one made in 2010 was notarized. Both listed assets as well as personal comments about some of the men Franklin was involved with in her life. 

During the trial in Michigan, the jury was left to decide whether the 2014 document met with the standards of Michigan law. 

The dueling documents –2014 handwritten vs. an earlier 2010 will that contained Aretha’s signature on all pages– pitted sons Kecalf and Edward against Ted, since each had varying divisions of the assets and allowances.

In his opening statement, lawyer for her son Ted A. White said: “There’s nothing that says you can’t keep a will in a spiral notebook in your couch cushion… The bigger issue here is, What was her intent?”

The judge overseeing the case said even though the verdict ruled the 2014 will to be valid, White could still make arguments for part of the 2010 will to be incorporated in the estate plan.  

After the trial concluded, Kecalf denied there was any animosity between him and his brother White. “I love my brother with all my heart,” he said.

Franklin’s estate was valued at $18 million after her death, according to Smith. The estate paid $8 million in federal income tax in 2021 in accordance with a deal reached with the IRS.  

The 2023 court accounting document also listed $4.1 million in personal property and real estate, $42,000 in furs; $73,000 in jewelry and a little over $1 million in bank balances. 

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