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Aretha Franklin and the Trouble with Handwritten Wills

When Aretha Franklin died in August of 2018, her family thought that she had died without a will, or as lawyers would say it, intestate. When a person dies without a will, the state has a built-in set of rules, called intestacy laws, that determine who will inherit that person’s estate. Aretha Franklin’s estate is estimated to be close to 80 million dollars, and her four sons would inherit equally under Michigan’s intestacy laws, so there was a lot at stake.

The court appointed a niece of Aretha to serve as the Personal Representative of the estate, and she began to do her job—identifying the estate’s assets, paying the estate’s debts and taxes, and protecting what Aretha left behind.

About a year later though, the niece discovered the keys to a locked cabinet, opened it, and found two handwritten wills, one dated June 21, 2010, and one dated October 20, 2010, and then, in a spiral notebook left under a couch cushion, a third handwritten will dated March 31, 2014.

Since then, only trouble has ensued, with two of Aretha’s sons arguing for the admission of the 2014 will, which names one of them as executor, while another is arguing for all three wills to be recognized, together, and one is asking that none of them be admitted to probate at all. The judge has asked the family to find a mediator and attempt to come to some resolution of their dispute and a handwriting expert has been hired to examine the wills and determine whether or not Franklin actually wrote them.

The details of Aretha’s wills really don’t matter as much as the fact that leaving multiple copies of handwritten wills around your home is just a bad estate planning strategy.

In California, handwritten wills, which are technically called holographic wills, and are signed without other people to witness your signature, are valid, as long as the following is true:

  1. The document must make it clear that the person writing it intends it to be their last will and testament.
  2. The person writing it must have the legal capacity to write it, which means they must understand what they are doing.
  3. It must be written in the person’s own handwriting. A pre-written form is OK if the answers written in are in their handwriting.
  4. It must be signed by the person making the will and it should be dated.

As the story of Aretha Franklin’s wills illustrates, handwritten wills can be difficult to read, difficult to prove to be valid, and leave a lot of questions unanswered—such as what a person intended to say and whether or not they had the mental capacity to understand what they were doing.