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Fight Over Aretha Franklin's Estate Shows Why Will Clarity Matters

Last will and testament document

Five years after her death, Franklin's estate is yet to be settled.

Throughout her life, the Queen of Soul spelled out exactly what she wanted - R-E-S-P-E-C-T, for one. So, it was a surprise to many people that when Aretha Franklin died, her final wishes were not clear.

Franklin died in 2018 without a last will and testament - or so it seemed. Since her death, two handwritten wills for Franklin's estate have been discovered at the singer's home. One was wedged between couch cushions, and the other in a locked cabinet. It's been 5 years since Franklin died, and the courts are still working out how to divide up her sizable fortune in real estate, jewelry, and music royalties.

The ongoing, multi-year legal battle between Franklin's sons and other family members demonstrates the weaknesses of handwritten wills. It emphasizes the importance of consulting an estate planning attorney to create a clear, official last will and testament. Here are three important lessons to learn from Franklin's estate.

Lessons from Franklin's estate

1. Everyone needs a last will and testament.

When someone dies "intestate," meaning they died without a will or another type of estate plan, their estate is often given to surviving family members based on the state's "intestate succession" laws. However, the distribution of assets can quickly become complicated if there are many surviving descendants and if anyone claims they have a right to inherit all or part of someone's estate. In Franklin's case, her sons have fought over which will is valid - the official-looking one written in 2019 and kept under lock and key, or the most recent version written in 2014 and discovered in the couch.

2. Handwritten wills are easier to contest.

Handwritten wills are valid in Arizona, but they are easier to contest and more likely to contain invalidating errors than a document written by a lawyer. A jury decided in July that Franklin's 2014 will is valid and supersedes the 2010 will. The jury's decision has cleared the way for a third attempt to divide Franklin's assets. A legally binding last will and testament written by an experienced estate planning attorney would have likely spared the Franklin family the emotional pain and legal expense of deciphering her last wishes.

3. Get help from an experienced attorney.

You might think you don't need an attorney to create a last will and testament, especially if you know what you want to do with your assets. But you would be surprised how complicated creating a will can be, especially if you have a fair number of assets and beneficiaries. An estate that ends up in litigation can quickly become a nightmare for your family.

Consult an Arizona estate planning lawyer today

At The Law Firm of Brown & Jensen, we understand how difficult it can be for individuals to develop a detailed estate plan without the help of an attorney—but we are here to help. This is about your future, your family, and your legacy. You need to get it right. Our lawyers have extensive experience helping families in Arizona move through this process. We proudly serve clients in Mesa, Tucson, Scottsdale, Chandler, Peoria, Goodyear, Payson, and Show Low. If you need to write or update a last will and testament in Arizona, contact us today for a free consultation.

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