Aretha Franklin’s Four Sons Battle Over Two Handwritten Wills

A family dispute over legendary singer Aretha Franklin’s final wishes will head to court on Monday, the latest chapter in a years-long battle to divide up the late Queen of Soul’s estimated $80 million estate.

Franklin died in 2018 after a six-decade career in the music business, leaving behind a legacy that included over 75 million record sales, 17 Top 10 hits, and 112 charted Billboard singles. Despite that, when she was felled by pancreatic cancer at age 76, she left behind little in the way of plans for her earthly possessions, which included a home, as well as lucrative royalties and licensing assets.

According to the Detroit Free Press, by 2021, four different wills were discovered in searches of Franklin’s Detroit home, including three handwritten notes and a typewritten but unsigned document prepared by a law firm in 2017. Under Michigan law, other documents—even those “with scribbles, scratch-outs, and hard-to-read passages”—can act as a will, as noted by The Associated Press.

Though the various documents acknowledge that the estate should be divided between her four sons, details as to which of her children will ultimately control her legacy remain legally murky. One document, dated in 2010, names son Theodore White and niece Sabrina Owens as co-executors, the LA Times reports. It also contains the condition that two of her other sons, Kecalf Franklin, and Edward Franklin, “must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” before they can collect their portion of their inheritance.

Another note dated 2014 keeps Owens as executor, but has White’s name crossed out. Instead, Kecalf is named as co-executor, and it’s his family and grandchildren who are bequeathed Franklin’s Bloomfield Hills home, the so-called “crown jewel” of the estate. In that document, business classes for her beneficiaries are not mentioned, but a guarantee of support for her eldest son, Clarence, is. (According to an Orlando Sentinel report from 1991, Clarence, born when Franklin was just 12 years old, lives with schizophrenia and has spent his adult life in a foster home.)

White’s attorney characterized the 2014 document as “merely a draft” and maintains that the 2010 note is signed and notarized. Noting the wild search of Franklin’s home to find the wills, he says that if the 2014 document, which was found beneath some pillows, “were intended to be a will, there would have been more care than putting it in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion.”

The two factions will meet in court starting next week, presided over by Oakland County probate judge Jennifer Callaghan, who’s overseen the estate dispute since Franklin’s passing.

Ultimately, a jury will decide which of the documents—both of which contain copious margin notes and crossed-out passages—should be honored.

For her part, Owens, who’s served as executor since Franklin’s death, resigned in 2020 to “calm the rift in my family,” she added. “In spite of my best efforts, my role with the estate has become more contentious with the heirs. Given my aunt’s deep love of family and desire for privacy, this is not what she would have wanted for us, nor is it what I want.”

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