From An Estate Planning Attorney: Lessons Learned from Aretha Franklin’s Long Estate Battle | Felinton Elder Law Estate Planning Asset Protection

From An Estate Planning Attorney: Lessons Learned from Aretha Franklin’s Long Estate Battle

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, left behind a legacy of music that will live on forever. But she also left behind a legacy of estate planning mistakes that have kept her family in court for years. As an elder law and estate planning attorney, I have seen firsthand how important it is to have a clear and legally sound plan for your assets and your wishes. In this blog post, I will share some of the lessons learned from Aretha Franklin’s estate battle and how you can avoid them.

Lesson 1: Don’t rely on handwritten wills

One of the biggest sources of conflict in Aretha Franklin’s estate was the discovery of three handwritten wills, two from 2010 and one from 2014, that were found in her home after her death. These wills, also known as holographic wills, are not recognized in many states and can be easily challenged or invalidated. They also tend to be vague, incomplete, and inconsistent, leaving room for interpretation and dispute.

In Aretha Franklin’s case, her sons disagreed over which will should be honored and what their mother really intended. A probate court judge ruled in July 2023 that the 2014 will was valid, but the case is still not over. The estate is facing lawsuits from creditors, the IRS, and Franklin’s former lawyer, who claims he is owed millions in fees.

The lesson here is simple: don’t rely on handwritten wills. They are not worth the risk and the hassle. Instead, work with a qualified estate planning attorney to create a formal, typewritten will that meets the legal requirements of your state and reflects your wishes clearly and accurately.

Lesson 2: Don’t procrastinate on estate planning

Another mistake that Aretha Franklin made was procrastinating on estate planning. Despite having years of health problems and being urged by her lawyer to create a trust, she never got around to it. She died without a formal estate plan in place, leaving her assets and her heirs exposed to probate, taxes, and litigation.

Procrastination is a common enemy of estate planning. Many people think they have plenty of time, or they don’t want to deal with the emotional and financial aspects of planning for their death. But the reality is that none of us knows when our time will come, and the consequences of not planning can be devastating for our loved ones.

The lesson here is simple: don’t procrastinate about estate planning. It is one of the most important and caring things you can do for yourself and your family. By planning ahead, you can avoid probate, minimize taxes, protect your assets, and ensure that your wishes are respected and honored.

Lesson 3: Don’t forget to update your estate plan

Even if you have a formal estate plan in place, you still need to update it regularly to reflect any changes in your life, your assets, your family, or the law. Failing to do so can result in unintended consequences and conflicts.

For example, Aretha Franklin’s 2014 will named her niece, Sabrina Owens, as the personal representative of her estate. However, Owens resigned from the role in 2020, citing a breakdown of communication and trust among the family members. This left the estate without a leader and added more delays and complications to the process.

The lesson here is simple: don’t forget to update your estate plan. Review it at least every few years, or whenever you experience a major life event, such as marriage, divorce, birth, death, inheritance, or relocation. Make sure your estate plan reflects your current situation and goals, and that you have the right people in place to carry out your wishes.


Aretha Franklin’s estate battle is a cautionary tale for anyone who cares about their legacy and their family. By learning from her mistakes, you can avoid the same pitfalls and create a smooth and peaceful transition for your loved ones. If you need help with your estate planning, contact us!