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3 important lessons Aretha Franklin’s will dispute could teach you about estate planning

As you may have read in the news, Aretha Franklin’s family underwent a lengthy and costly will dispute after the singer’s death in 2018. The conflict was only resolved in the summer of 2023.

According to a Guardian report, two possible wills were discovered in Franklin’s home after she passed away. In one, her son Ted White II was listed as the executor. In the other, her other son Kecalf Cunningham would be the co-executor and inheritor of her £934,000 mansion.

Until the wills were discovered, the singer’s assets were set to be divided equally – but after uncovering these two documents, Franklin’s legacy wishes were called into question.

After a lengthy set of legal proceedings, a jury ruled that the second will – which was handwritten on a spiral ring binder and found under a sofa cushion – was found to be legal. This means that her children will inherit assets of different value after five years of proceedings and deliberation.

Understandably, this kind of will dispute can be incredibly difficult, both emotionally and financially, for families to cope with. It can be extremely challenging to go through legal proceedings and family arguments in a time of grief – especially if these disputes are avoidable.

Here are three things you can learn from Aretha Franklin’s “two-will” conflict.

1. Discussing your wishes with your beneficiaries can help avoid confusion

Leaving a clear-cut legacy that does not cause any confusion means planning well ahead of time.

Although writing down your wishes is important – more on this later in the article – talking face to face with your family can be more valuable than you realise.

Indeed, research from Scottish Widows, published by MoneyAge, found that 57% of parents have never discussed their will with their adult children.

This study of 2,000 UK adults reveals that many people have put off having these all-important conversations with their loved ones – and this could lead to further difficulty if you were to pass away.

Although it can be uncomfortable, it may help to sit down with your beneficiaries, including children, nieces and nephews, and adult grandchildren. Explaining your legacy wishes face to face, with everyone present, can help to avoid confusion down the line.

2. Having 1 official will may prevent disputes after your death

Of course, after discussing what you wish to leave to your beneficiaries, it’s essential to go one step further and put your plans in writing in the form of a will.

It’s important to note here that, according to Citizens Advice, a valid UK will must be:

  • In writing

  • Signed by you

  • Signed by two witnesses

  • Made by an adult “of sound mind”, meaning that you legally have mental capacity when creating the will

  • Made voluntarily with no pressure from outside sources.

Sadly, Aretha Franklin’s family ran into trouble when discovering that she had made two separate wills, one in 2010 and one in 2014. While the reasons for Franklin making two wills are unclear, these two written documents led her family to enter legal proceedings when attempting to decipher which one was legally binding.

So, an important lesson that can be learned from Franklin’s circumstances is that having one official will document, rather than multiple versions of it, is essential. If you make a new will, it could be wise to destroy the old version to avoid confusion.

What’s more, ensuring you keep your will in a secure, labelled folder in your home may help your loved ones sort through your affairs more easily down the line.

3. Working with a professional can give you peace of mind

Unfortunately, will disputes are on the rise. The latest data from Royal London found that there were almost 10,000 challenges to the distribution of inherited estates in England and Wales in 2021 – a 37% rise compared with 2019.

The report states that: “Statistics show that the pandemic was responsible for a spike in DIY will writing […] producing a will yourself could lead to problems and end up costing a lot more in the long term”.

As a will is a legal document, working with a professional when drawing up your estate plan could provide immense peace of mind to you and your family.

A legal professional can help you with the document itself. And, importantly, a financial planner can offer guidance on constructing your will, including:

  • How to split your assets fairly among your beneficiaries

  • The ins and outs of ringfencing property and investments within a trust

  • Whether your assets are likely to attract Inheritance Tax (IHT), and how you can mitigate your family’s bill where possible

  • Discussing the contents of your will together with your whole family.

Although it can be easy to put off making a will, the conflict surrounding Aretha Franklin’s estate is a perfect example of why procrastination in this area could lead to costly disputes after you’re gone.

Get in touch

Here at Atherton York, we have years of experience in helping individuals create estate plans that reflect their wishes and take tax efficiency into account.

If you’re yet to think about succession planning, email or call us on 0208 882 2979 to get started.

Please note

This blog is for general information only and does not constitute advice. The information is aimed at retail clients only.

The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate estate planning, tax planning or will writing.

All contents are based on our understanding of HMRC legislation, which is subject to change.

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