The death of Aretha Franklin in 2018 left a void in the music world, but it also sparked a legal saga that highlighted the complexities of inheritance law and the importance of having a properly executed Will.

After her passing, two handwritten Wills were discovered, each with different provisions for the distribution of her estate.

This led to a contentious probate court battle between her four sons, each vying for their share of her multi-million-dollar fortune.

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Challenges of enforcing handwritten Wills

The legal dispute over Aretha Franklin's Will highlights the challenges of interpreting and enforcing handwritten Wills, regardless of the jurisdiction. In England and Wales, a handwritten Will is valid if it is signed by the testator (the person making the Will) and two witnesses, who must both be present when the testator signs the same.

However, a Will can be challenged if it fails to comply with the requirements of the Wills Act 1837 on the basis of the following grounds: 

  1. Capacity: The testator (the person making the Will) must have the mental capacity to understand the nature and effect of the document they are creating. If there are doubts about the testator's mental state at the time of making the Will, it can lead to challenges.
  2. Undue Influence: A Will may be deemed invalid if there is evidence of undue influence, coercion, or pressure on the testator. This emphasises the need for a Will to reflect the genuine intentions of the testator.
  3. Proper Execution: The Wills Act requires the testator's signature to be witnessed by two independent witnesses who are present at the same time. Failure to adhere to these formalities can render the Will invalid.
  4. Knowledge and Approval: The testator must be aware of the contents of the Will and approve them. Any evidence suggesting ignorance or misunderstanding of the Will's provisions can lead to challenges.

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The Aretha Franklin case

In the case of Aretha Franklin's Will, the authenticity of her handwriting was a major point of contention.

The 2010 Will, which left the bulk of her estate to her four sons, was found in a locked cabinet in her home.

The 2014 Will, which left a larger share of her estate to her youngest son, was found wedged under a couch cushion.

The sons who contested the 2014 Will argued that Aretha Franklin did not write it and that it had been forged.

After a lengthy legal battle, a Michigan jury in the US ruled in 2023 that the 2014 Will was valid. This means that Aretha Franklin's youngest son, Kecalf Franklin, received the largest share of her estate.

However, the dispute over her Will has also served as a cautionary tale about the importance of having a properly executed will.

A Will drafted by a law firm and properly executed is more likely to be upheld in court.

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How to ensure your Will is valid

In England and Wales, there are a number of steps that you can take to ensure that your Will is valid and effective.

These include:

  • Having your Will drafted by an experienced law firm. A solicitor can help you ensure that your Will complies with all of the legal requirements and accurately reflects your wishes.
  • Having your Will signed by two witnesses. The witnesses should be disinterested parties who are not beneficiaries of your Will.
  • Having your Will witnessed by a professional witness. A professional witness, such as a solicitor or barrister, can provide additional credibility to your Will and make it more difficult for someone to challenge its validity.
  • Keeping your Will in a safe place. Your Will should be kept in a secure location where it is accessible to your executor but not to the general public.

By taking these steps, you can help avoid the kind of disputes that can arise over an invalid or unclear Will.

A well-drafted will can provide peace of mind for you and your loved ones, ensuring your estate is distributed according to your wishes.

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