News of Aretha Franklin’s passing broke on August 16. Just days before, it was reported she was receiving hospice care. The Memphis-born singer sold more than 75 million records in her nearly seven-decade career. And even after her death, her estate will continue to receive proceeds from record sales, digital downloads, and licensing fees.
According to court documents, the legendary singer did not have a will when she died, opening her estate up to public scrutiny and potential problems. Failing to create an estate plan can cause lots of headaches for heirs, in addition to unnecessary costs.
Franklin, who died August 16, 2018, at age 76, left behind four sons, but no guidance on how to distribute her reported $80 million estate. According to The New York Times, her sons filed paperwork in Oakland County, Michigan, indicating that she died intestate – a term meaning “without a will.” The sons nominated Franklin’s niece to serve as the personal representative of the estate. When someone dies without a will, the estate is divided according to state law. Under Michigan law, an unmarried decedent’s estate is distributed to his or her children. (Franklin had been married twice but long since divorced.)
Even if the “Queen of Soul” had wanted her estate to go solely to her children, by not having a will or trust, her estate will have to go through a long public probate process, which will likely cost her estate considerable money. If Franklin, who was quite private in life, had created an estate plan that included a will and a trust, she could have avoided probate and kept the details of her financial circumstances private. In addition, by not having a will, Franklin has opened her estate up to potential challenges that could drag out the probate process. Without a will to clearly state the decedent’s intent, litigation resulting from family conflicts often eats into estates.
It has also been reported that her eldest son, Clarence, 63, has special needs – which presents other potential complications. Entertainment news site TMZ reports Clarence has unspecified special needs and requires “financial and other forms of support for his entire life.” But perhaps even more importantly, that estate plan could have made special provisions to ensure that Clarence would receive proper care for the rest of his life. Franklin could have established a special needs trust to preserve any public benefits Clarence may be receiving, or perhaps allocated him a larger share of her estate. She also could have accompanied a financial plan for him with a Memorandum of Intent (also called a “Letter of Intent”) to serve as the primary source of information about her son’s care, providing a roadmap for the courts, guardians, caregivers and others involved in his life.
Finally, because Franklin did not plan her estate, the estate will be subject to unnecessary estate taxation. Although she may not have been able to avoid estate tax entirely, there are steps she could have taken to reduce the amount her estate will have to pay.
“I was after her for a number of years to do a trust,” attorney Don Wilson, who represented Franklin in entertainment matters for the past 28 years, told the Detroit Free Press. “It would have expedited things and kept them out of probate and kept things private.”
Estate planning is important even if you don’t have Aretha Franklin’s assets. It allows you, while you are still living, to ensure that your property will go to the people you want, in the way you want, and when you want. It permits you to save as much as possible on taxes, court costs, and attorneys’ fees; and it affords the comfort that your loved ones can mourn your loss without being simultaneously burdened with unnecessary red tape and financial confusion. To find out what is best for you and your loved ones, speak with a certified Estate Planning specialist.
The information provided is not intended to be legal advice and does not constitute any attorney/client relationship. You should consult with an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation.
Ms. Melancon is an attorney with Legacy Estate & Elder Law of Louisiana, LLC with offices in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, LA. The primary focus of her practice is estate planning, probate, special needs planning, and elder law. For more information or to attend an upcoming estate planning seminar, call her office at (225) 744-0027