Nearly three years have passed since Aretha Franklin, known as the “Queen of Soul,” died from pancreatic cancer at age 76. When she first passed away in August 2018, her family thought that Aretha died without any estate plan at all. But since then, four different wills attributed to the late singer have been discovered. And ever since those documents came to light, her four adult sons—Clarence, Edward, Ted White Jr., and Kecalf—have been in court fighting one another over her assets, as well as who among them should be designated as the estate’s representative.
While a trial is set for August 2021 to establish whether any of the four documents, some of which are handwritten and barely legible, can formally stand as her will, Aretha’s story demonstrates just how destructive shoddy estate planning can be for the loved ones we leave behind.
Indeed, in part one of this series we discussed how the ongoing court battle between Aretha’s four sons has created an ugly rift between the siblings and exposed dark family secrets to the tabloids, both of which the notoriously private singer undoubtedly would have wanted to avoid. We also noted that following Aretha’s death, the IRS claimed that she owed nearly $8 million in unpaid income taxes. And because Aretha’s sons only recently reached a tentative deal to pay off the IRS, so far, Aretha’s family has yet to receive a single penny from her estate—which is estimated to be worth up to $80 million—even though the legendary musician died nearly three years ago.
Here in part two, we will discuss how Aretha could have planned to spare her loved ones from their current conflict, expense, and embarrassing public exposure. From there, we will discuss how you can take steps to ensure that your family can avoid suffering a similar fate as Aretha’s, even if you have far less wealth and assets than Aretha.
The IRS Comes Calling
Given that none of Aretha’s four alleged wills were properly completed or filed with the court, her estate and all its assets remain stuck in court, awaiting a judge to rule on the validity of those documents. However, even if one of those wills was proven valid, her assets would still be inaccessible to her loved ones due to her massive tax debt.
When Aretha died in 2018, the IRS claimed the late singer owed more than $7.8 million in unpaid income taxes, interest, and penalties, which accrued from 2010 to 2017, according to the Detroit Free Press. While her sons have appealed the total amount owed, the estate has been steadily paying on the tax debt and interest since Aretha’s death, and as of December 2020, the remaining unpaid balance with the IRS was estimated to be $4.75 million. In March 2021, a tentative deal was reached with the IRS to pay off the debt, as well as finally distribute some cash to her four sons. Under the agreement, which was reached with attorneys for Aretha’s sons, the IRS will receive an immediate payment of $800,000. Additionally, 45% of quarterly revenue from the estate, which comes largely from royalties and licensing, will be paid toward the balance due to the IRS. Another 40% is to be held in an escrow account to pay future taxes on income generated by the estate.
The deal also stipulates that Aretha’s four sons will receive an immediate payment of just $50,000 each. From there, they are set to get quarterly payouts in equally distributed shares of whatever is left after the remaining 15% of revenue is used to cover the estate’s administration costs, which could eat up a substantial part of the remaining funds.
Although the deal must still be approved by a judge, and Aretha’s sons continue to dispute the total amount of taxes owed, the agreement stipulates that any overpayments to the IRS will be returned to the estate for equal distribution to the sons should they be successful in proving a lower amount is due, whether in trial or through a settlement outside of court.
The Dangers of DIY Planning
Aretha made an obvious mistake by attempting to create her first three wills on her own by hand, with apparently no help from legal counsel, and the fact that those wills were lost for years attests to just how risky do-it-yourself (DIY) planning can be. Indeed, when you rely on DIY estate planning instead of the services of a trusted advisor guiding you and your family, your planning documents can easily disappear or even be stolen and changed by someone else.
When we create or update your plan, it is standard practice for us to not only keep current copies of your documents in a file at our office, but we also ensure that everyone named in your plan knows what their role is and what to do when something happens to you. This way, the people you choose can immediately put the necessary legal actions in motion to effectively manage your estate.
While it is always a good idea to have a lawyer help you create your planning documents, this is particularly true when you have a blended family like Aretha’s. If you are in a second (or more) marriage, with children from a prior marriage, there is an inherent risk of dispute because your children and spouse often have conflicting interests, particularly if there is significant wealth at stake.
And the risk of conflict is vastly increased if you are looking to disinherit a beneficiary, like Aretha may have attempted to do in one of her wills. By creating your own plan, even with the help of an online document service, like LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, or TrustandWill.com, you will not be able to consider and plan ahead to avoid all the potential legal and family conflicts that could arise. Our processes and systems are designed to identify and prevent conflicts before they ever happen, and our unique planning process can help create connections among your loved ones and bring your family closer together. In fact, this is part of our special sauce!
Relying on a Will Alone is Not Enough
Next up in the list of Aretha’s planning failures is her fourth will, which was reportedly created with help of the Detroit law firm Dickinson Wright, according to the Detroit Free Press. Although the fact that Aretha hired a law firm to help her draft the will shows that the singer was apparently getting more serious about planning, her efforts there still failed. First off, because her estate plan includes only a will and not a trust to hold title to her assets privately, Aretha’s family had a guarantee of getting stuck in the court process known as probate. And as we have already seen in Aretha’s case, probate can not only be a long, drawn-out process that takes years to complete, but it can also create ugly conflicts between family members and waste significant money on lawyer’s fees.
Worst of all, relying on a will alone has the potential to have disastrous repercussions for one of Aretha’s family members in particular—her oldest son, Clarence, who has spec