RESPECT the WILL – the recent case concerning Aretha Franklin’s estate and the importance of a professional will.

Can you write your own Will?  

In short, the answer to this question is “yes”. However, the true question is whether you should write your own Will.  
Writing your own Will comes with considerable risk. In this article, we take a look at the recent Aretha Franklin case and the five year legal battle her children had to prove her Will and grant her final wishes. 

Aretha Franklin, colloquially referred to as the “Queen of Soul”, and her handwritten Wills were the subject of a lengthy legal dispute between her surviving family members due to the uncertainty of her last wishes and to whom she wished to bequeath her estate to.  

When she died in August 2018, it was thought that Franklin left no Will, meaning her entire estate was to be split equally between her four sons. 9 months after her death, Wills were found at her home; one dated June 2010 found inside a locked cabinet, and one dated March 2014 found inside a spiral notebook under sofa cushions. One of her sons sought to argue that the Will dated 2010 is the real Will which largely benefited him, whereas two of her other sons were arguing that the Will dated 2014, which was more in favour of them, should take precedence.  

Six jurors in the city of Pontiac, Michigan, were asked to determine whether the 2014 Will qualifies as a valid Will. The Will was handwritten, hard to decipher and had words scribbled out throughout. They reached a verdict within less than an hour, and despite the informalities of the 2014 Will, they decided that it was indeed a valid Will and should be followed accordingly when administering and distributing her estate. Three of Franklin’s sons would therefore evenly split her music royalties and bank funds, whilst her youngest son would inherit his mother’s primary residence – a gated mansion last valued at $1.2 million. The 2010 Will would have seen a more even split of the late singer’s assets, but that Will required two of her sons to take business classes and obtain a certificate or degree in order to benefit under it. The ruling is a victory for them. 

In England and Wales, the following components are required in order for a Last Will and Testament to be deemed valid:  

  • the Will must be in writing; 
  • the Will must be signed by the testator or by some other person in the testator’s presence and by their direction;  
  • it must appear that the testator intended by their signature to give effect to the Will; and 
  • the Will must be signed by the testator in the presence of two or more witnesses present at the same time who both must attest and sign the Will.  

Generally speaking, the testator must also have the requisite mental capacity and understanding in order to make a Will, otherwise their Will could be open to challenges after they have passed away. 

So long as the conditions above are met, a handwritten Will, also referred to as a “holographic Will”, can be deemed a valid Last Will and Testament and can dictate how the deceased’s estate must be dealt with.  

However, a handwritten Will can cause uncertainty, can be hard to decipher and may cause issues and disputes if certain things are not covered by the testator when putting pen to paper. You would need to weigh up the risks involved in writing your own Will, compared to having one drawn by a professional who can offer you guidance throughout the process.  

As the case referred to above shows, loved ones can be left to determine how best to administer the estate and may need to refer to the Court for directions on what to do, which can be both a time consuming and costly process for those involved and will likely lead to animosity between family or loved ones. The late Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, and it is only in November 2023, five years later, that the family has reached a resolution on how to proceed.  

We would always recommend that you instruct a professional will writing solicitor, such as RLK Solicitors, to prepare your Will to ensure that everything is covered, your last wishes are clear, and that the document is legally valid, which will leave you and your family with peace of mind. We will take your instructions, offer guidance and advice on its content and prepare the Will for execution.  

If you wish to make a new Will, or update your existing Will, contact us and we will be happy to help you.