Aretha Franklin was a legend in the music world. The singer and songwriter, who became known as the Queen of Soul, not only touched fans with her musical talent but also played an instrumental role in the civil rights movement, fighting to raise awareness of issues facing African-Americans, women, and indigenous people across the globe. Her life served as an inspiration for millions and taught those who listened to her music and her messages about important issues that helped lead the social transformation of the 1960s.
Franklin died on Aug. 16 at the age of 76, and her death once again has focused attention on the many causes that were important to her. Yet despite all the things she did, one thing that she neglected to do could end up causing strife for her family -- and teach a lesson in a very different area: estate planning.
The Queen of Soul leaves no will
After Franklin's death, her four sons filed legal documents with a local probate court in Michigan. According to the filings, Franklin died intestate -- meaning that she had no will -- and her sons couldn't find any will or other testamentary document that would govern how her estate would be dispersed.
As a consequence, details of the Queen of Soul's estate will become part of the public record, as the probate court will have to hold proceedings to address the disposition of her assets at the time of her death. Various estimates put the value of Franklin's estate at roughly $80 million, and although details aren't yet known, future filings will likely reveal a mix that includes a residence, financial investments, other real estate, and possibly royalties and various business interests that she might have invested in during her lifetime. In addition, Franklin's personal effects and memorabilia that she might have collected over the course of her career could also have both sentimental and monetary value.
An attorney for Franklin told reporters that he had urged the singer to do estate planning work that could have simplified the process of distributing her assets after her death. Yet like many celebrities before her, Franklin apparently never did so.
Fortunately, it appears that in this case, it's likely that Franklin's estate will be distributed in the way that she probably would have wanted. As in all states, Michigan law provides for default provisions in the event that someone dies without a will. Under those rules -- also called the laws of intestate succession -- assets often go to a spouse if the deceased person was married at the time of death. For those who are unmarried, children are typically the next in line to receive assets.
However, there's always the possibility that a previously unknown person will step up and stake a claim to Franklin's estate. Even if the intestate succession laws would put such a person below her four sons in terms of priority or leave the person out entirely, a lawsuit would be costly and create complications that could take years to sort out.
Franklin is far from the only celebrity not to have a will. Two years ago, singer-songwriter Prince died without having done any estate planning. In the music world, Barry White, Jimi Hendrix, and Sonny Bono are just three of the many performers to die without a will, leaving their estates in limbo until a probate court could sort things out.
The smart choice
Those who aren't celebrities also often make the mistake of procrastinating on their estate planning. Early in life, if you aren't married and don't have children, it might seem like there's no real need to have a document saying what happens to your assets in the unlikely event of your death. Later on, as the responsibilities of family life leave you with little free time, even the need to provide for your spouse and children if something happens to you might not be enough to get you to take action.
Yet it doesn't have to be complicated to get adequate estate planning in place. For some, a simple will is enough to provide the certainty that's necessary to ensure a proper disposal of property after death. Even a short will from Franklin naming her four sons as her heirs would have made the singer's intentions crystal clear.
If you want to avoid the public spectacle of probate court, then you can choose to create a revocable trust or living trust instead. A trust also leaves instructions on what to do with trust property after your death, but it does so without having to hold a probate court proceeding. That keeps your financial information private, keeping your assets off the radar of those who might want to sow discord in an attempt to extract money from your loved ones.
Aretha Franklin's death serves as a reminder of all the things she did to help people. In that context, her estate planning mistake is sad but will hopefully turn out to be trivial. The lesson you can learn from that mistake is to choose a will or trust and make sure that your financial affairs are dealt with appropriately. Your loved ones will thank you for making it a little easier to deal with the aftermath of their loss.