How to ensure your executors R E S P E C T your wishes – lessons to be learned from the Aretha Franklin estate dispute

Stephanie Hepburn and Chloe Imrie overview the decision in a recent court case involving the distribution of Aretha Franklin’s estate, and how to prevent similar disputes from arising in Scotland.

1 August 2023


The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76 in 2018. Five years later, her estate is yet to be wound up due to the discovery of two informal writings which raised questions about the rightful beneficiaries of her estate and opened the door to a prolonged legal battle within her family.

At first, it was thought Aretha died without leaving a will (known as dying “intestate”), which meant that Michigan state law would dictate the distribution of her assets according to the intestacy However, some nine months later, two handwritten scrawls were found; one in a locked cabinet and one down the back of the sofa.

The two writings, one dated 2010 and one from 2014, state different intentions and appoint different executors. The later writing would ordinarily take precedence, however doubt had been cast as to its validity, due to its location, and the fact the notebook also contained doodles and questions about the signature on the document.  Both writings contained notes, and the writing was difficult to decipher. The question for the jury was, “is the 2014 writing a valid will?”

The key dispute between the two documents centred around Aretha’s gated mansion, worth approximately £1m.

One of Aretha’s sons, Ted, argued that the 2010 writing should be deemed as her true will, stating that other legal documents she had signed had always been carried out “conventionally” rather than informally, like the 2014 writing. The 2010 writing appointed him as executor and provided for a more even split. It also provided that two of her sons, Kecalf and Edward, “must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” before they could inherit any of their share of the estate . The 2014 document did not contain this requirement. It provided that her four sons would share equally in her royalties, but her son Kecalf and his children would inherit her mansion.

Following a two-day trial in Michigan, six jurors deliberated for just one hour and found that the 2014 document should be regarded as Aretha’s will, superseding the note from 2010. The key point was that intention matters, not the form of the will. It did not matter the will was in a notebook under the couch, just that it showed her wishes.

The uncertainty of these documents led to a protracted, expensive, and no doubt distressing dispute within Aretha’s family, all played out in the public eye. Losing a loved one is an emotionally challenging time, and clarity surrounding the testator’s wishes can make a difficult time that bit easier. The case serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of having a well drafted and legally binding will. Aretha’s failure to do so led to a complicated legal battle, placing her family in the spotlight and prolonging the distribution of her estate.

How can will disputes be avoided?

Wills are not just for the rich and famous. Regardless of wealth or status, will disputes can be avoided by instructing a solicitor to professionally draft your will, making sure that your wishes are clearly stated and that it complies with the legal requirements for signing and witnessing. Succession planning can give rise to a number of other complexities, for example, the tax liability of your estate, and your solicitor can advise you on these, minimising the potential for disputes on your death.

If you believe a will is not valid, there may be ways you can challenge it. For further information, please see our article outlining the process here.

If a will has been lost, an action to prove the tenor of the lost will may be necessary. The process is outlined in our article here.

If you have any queries on the above, please do not hesitate to get in touch with Stephanie Hepburn in our contentious executries team.


This article was co-authored by, Chloe Imrie, Trainee, Dispute Resolution and Litigation.