P – R – I – V – A – C – Y
The legal case for the Estate of Aretha Franklin ended yesterday with a finding that her hand-written 2014 Will that was found under a couch cushion is her valid Will. According to her long-time attorney, Aretha Franklin was too private to rely on her attorney to prepare her Last Will and Testament.
How Private Should You Be About Your Last Will and Testament?
Don Wilson, an entertainment lawyer who represented Ms. Franklin for nearly 30 years told NBC News that “[s]he was a very private person” who “didn’t want to share that information with another individual, such as an attorney.”
With all due RESPECT, this line of thinking is short-sighted and has now caused Ms. Franklin’s family to suffer through five years of legal battles.
Since her passing, when the family initially assumed she had no Will or Trust, three different Wills have been found in her home…the most recent one in a spiral notebook under a couch cushion.
Each Will left parts of her estate (estimated to be worth $80 million when she died but more recently around $4-6 million after various expenses have been paid, including debts due to the IRS) to different beneficiaries.
One Will left the bulk of her estate to two of her sons; one Will left the estate to another son. Ms. Franklin also had a fourth son who has special needs and was not included in either Will.
Why An Estate Planning Attorney is Necessary
Even if your estate does not match the value of Aretha Franklin’s, if privacy is important to you, the best thing to do is meet with a reputable estate planning attorney and execute a solid estate plan that avoids probate. Here’s why:
1. Confidentiality – Ethical rules require the attorney to keep anything you tell them in confidence. If you are not comfortable disclosing your estate information to your attorney, then it is important to find an attorney with whom you are comfortable discussing these matters.
2. Open to interpretation – If you attempt to prepare your own documents and do not utilize the services of someone who is professionally trained to write testamentary documents, it is highly likely that the documents will include ambiguities that will cause disputes among your heirs and beneficiaries. These disputes will not only expend estate funds on legal fees, it will bring your otherwise private affairs into litigation, which is a public forum.
SIDEBAR: Unlike Michigan, where Aretha Franklin died, in Connecticut, hand-written Wills (sometimes referred to as holographic wills) are NOT accepted. So not only should you not attempt to write your own Will, it is important to know that handwritten documents will not be accepted by the Probate Court if you live in Connecticut.
3. Probate Administration – If you die with assets in your individual name, your estate has to pass through probate administration, which is another public venue. This means that your Will (if you have one) and the value of your assets that go through probate are documented and filed with the Court and these documents are available for public viewing. A well-drafted revocable trust and corresponding documentation to title your assets into the trust will avoid the probate process and the documentation that becomes public.
What Happens to an Estate Without a Will?
SIDEBAR: If none of the Wills that Aretha Franklin wrote up on her own were held to be valid (which would be the case in Connecticut because they were all handwritten), then her estate is determined to be an intestate estate, which means the assets pass under State statute. In Aretha Franklin’s case, the laws of intestacy dictate that her estate would pass equally to her four children, including her son who has special needs, who she apparently wanted to keep out of the Will, possibly because it would affect benefits programs that he received.
Having a professional Estate Planning Attorney review your assets, family situation, goals and wishes is extremely important to ensure that your plan follows your wishes and does not inadvertently and detrimentally affect your loved ones.
If you haven’t guessed already, Estate Planning is one of the practice areas we focus on at Reed Wilson Case. If you are in Connecticut and want to ensure that your plan is solidly drafted and meets your goals and intentions, please call (860) 669-1222 to schedule a consultation with one of our Estate Planning attorneys.
Joan Reed Wilson Esq. – Managing Partner
Practices in the areas of estate planning, elder law, Medicaid planning, conservatorships, probate and trust administration, and real estate. Admitted to practice in the States of Connecticut and California, she is the President of the CT Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), an active member of the Elder Law Section of the Connecticut Bar Association, accredited with the PLAN of CT for Pooled Trusts, with the Veteran’s Administration to assist clients with obtaining Aid & Attendance benefits for long-term care needs and with the Agency on Aging’s CareLink Network.