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A Plot Twist for the Estate of the Queen of Soul: Three Handwritten Wills Found in Aretha Franklin’s Detroit Home Months After Her Death

Aretha Franklin died of pancreatic cancer last August at the age of 76. She died without a will. Since then there has been a great deal of controversy over the distribution of Franklin’s intestate estate. Perhaps most notable is the proposed sale of her Oakland County (Detroit) home for a mere $325,000.00.

Recently, it has been reported that three handwritten wills were found in Franklin’s home earlier this month. Two from 2010 found in a locked cabinet. The most recent, dated 2014, was found inside a notebook under cushions.

Attorney for Franklin’s estate has filed the wills with the probate court and a hearing on the validity of the documents is scheduled for June 12.

As many sources suggest, these wills were handwritten (holographic wills). The law concerning holographic wills in Michigan is similar to that of Ontario. Under Michigan’s Estates and Protected Individuals Code (“EPIC”), a holographic will is a will that is in the handwriting of the testator and is not witnessed. According to EPIC, It must meet several requirements:

  • It must be dated;
  • It must be signed by the testator;
  • The material portions of the will must be in the handwriting of the testator; and
  • It must be evident that the document was intended to serve as the testator’s last will.[1]

Accordingly, the “material portions” refer to the substantive contents of the will. This includes devisees, names of intended personal representatives, etc. Evidence of intention is typically in the form of a declaration on the face of the document naming it as a will (or some variation thereof). Furthermore, intention may also be established by extrinsic evidence, including, portions of the document that are not in the testator’s handwriting.[2]

Holographic wills that meet these requirements are valid but bring with them a great deal of suspicion. In cases such as this, consideration is given as to whether they are truly in the testator’s handwriting or whether they are forgeries.

Very little information has surfaced with regard to the contents or structure of these wills. If one is to be declared valid, it could have a significant impact on the distribution of Franklin’s estate, which, up until now, has been dealt with under Michigan’s laws of intestacy.

[1] MCL 700.2502(2).

[2] MCL 700.2502(3).

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