Sadly, last week the Queen of Soul passed away with almost no hints beforehand that her death was imminent. And then, in yet another sensational example of Rock Stars behaving badly, the media rushed to declare that Aretha Franklin died without a Will, how irresponsible this was, how much money she must have had, and how a bunch of attorneys will now make millions off her estate.
To reiterate my past-stated believes: Today’s mainstream media (not to mention non-mainstream media) is at best a conveyor of a little fact with a lot of opinion, and at worse completely full of ****. But stories about irresponsible celebrities sell in newspapers, tabloids, TV, radio, even in professional journals.
I don’t believe it, and I suggest you not believe them as well. She may be dead, but I think Aretha Franklin’s Estate Will Survive (terrible pun included).
The Queen of Soul was notoriously secretive about her life: We don’t have a good idea of how much money she has, what her copyrights and trademarks and businesses were, nor do we know her spending habits. She had multiple marriages, and several children with varying degrees of personal success. All these traits suggested that Ms. Franklin would have created LLCs and small corporations to hold her properties (I.e. in business entities that would not betray the fact she owned the property) and utilize trusts to transfer her estate. She may have had some “Transfer on Death” accounts that transferred accounts privately and owned her copyrights in a Trust.
Remember that Wills are PUBLIC documents when you die, and Ms. Franklin was not about publicity: If you don’t have any property passing under your Will it does not need to be probated in the Courts. So, the fact that she may have died without a Will does not mean she did not have an estate plan. Her children are likely bringing an Intestacy proceeding (which is kind of like probate without a Will) so they can be named Administrator of her estate and get access to all of her account information: An Administrator “steps into the shoes” of the decedent, meaning they can gain access to the information of her trust accounts, but will have a lot of trouble trying to invalidate those transfers. Basically, I think her children are going on a fishing expedition for information and will have caught a minnow by the boat returns to shore.
Lastly, if by some remote chance Ms. Franklin did not have a Will, then her estate passing under Intestacy should be easy: She would hardly be the first (or wealthiest) person to die without a Will (see my articles and interviews regarding Prince’s estate), and the state has default rules that are very hard to fight in these cases. So, don’t expect any reasonable lawyers actually overturning too much of these defaults.
In summation: Celebrities are human (except for Jimi Hendrix, who was a god) and they do make mistakes. But they are way too involved with lawyers to dodge dealing with estate matters at some point unless they go out of their way. Aretha Franklin was, most likely, someone who cared about where her money was going, didn’t want much judgement about it, and had trusts and small companies that were intended to avoid the publicity of probate. And leave it to the media to screw up everyone’s intentions.