The “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin, passed away on August 16, 2018 at age 76. She was survived by four children from three different fathers. Initially when she passed away, her family could not find a Will and began to probate Aretha’s estate as if she had not left any written directions. However, a few months after her death, as the family was going through her home, they discovered two handwritten documents, both purporting to be Wills. The first was found in a locked file cabinet, signed and notarized, dated in 2010. The second was found under a couch cushion, signed but not notarized and dated in 2014. The two Wills differed and caused disagreement among the children, resulting in a lengthy and costly legal battle to determine which of the two Wills governed Aretha’s Estate. Finally, on July 11, 2023, after a lengthy jury trial, the jury decided that the 2014 Will governed Aretha’s Estate. Almost five years after her death, the administration of Aretha’s Estate can finally begin. However, the relationship between her four children may never be the same.
When I speak with people about providing estate planning services such as preparing a Last Will and Testament, many are discouraged by the cost of hiring an attorney to prepare the necessary documents. It may be hard to understand why an attorney prepares lengthy documents such as a Will, Trust, or Powers of Attorney and why the expense to prepare such forms is worth it. Many people think they can prepare their own Will or use a web or software service to prepare the forms needed. However, the battle over Aretha Franklin’s Will demonstrates the importance of well-prepared estate planning. Had Aretha sought counsel from an attorney, it is possible the legal battle would not have occurred and relationships would not have been broken.
Using an attorney to prepare your estate plan has a number of benefits which typically outweigh the cost. For example, an attorney will ensure that all statutory requirements are met so there will be no barrier to probating a Will. In a recent case I handled, a decedent passed away leaving a typed Will prepared by an attorney, and a one-page handwritten Codicil that changed the beneficiary information. The Codicil was signed and had a notary stamp, but certain language required by Illinois law was not included in the Codicil to authenticate the signatures. As such, the probate court in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois denied admission of the Codicil to probate. As a result, the beneficiaries were those listed on the original Will, not the Codicil. Although the decedent likely intended the beneficiaries to change, the self-prepared Codicil was not prepared in accordance with the statutory requirements.
In addition, an attorney will tailor the Will and other estate planning forms to each particular client and fill in any “gaps” to minimize any post-death disputes over the client’s intentions. The attorney will consider the client’s financial and family situation, discuss the “what ifs” that may arise, and provide alternatives to cover any future circumstance. If there is a possibility that an heir may be unhappy with their bequest, the attorney may include a clause in the Will providing incentive for the heir to accept the bequest without controversy. The attorney will also consider the impact of income and estate taxes on the Will and craft an estate plan to minimize potential taxes. Further, the attorney will review the Will and other estate planning documents to make sure they are readable and make sense, which was a problem in Aretha Franklin’s case where the 2014 Will contained scribbles, scratch-outs, and hard-to-read passages.
Finally, using an attorney will provide a third-party perspective in cases where heirs dispute the decedent’s intentions. An attorney will typically retain written and email communications from the client which may be needed to further demonstrate the client’s intentions. An attorney will also clearly type the estate planning documents and review them with the client to ensure they reflect the client’s wishes. Not only will this minimize the potential for disputes among heirs through well-drafted documents, but the attorney and the law firm’s records provide supplementary evidence of the client’s intentions should a dispute arise.
In conclusion, the decision to hire an attorney to prepare your estate plan may seem costly at first, but the cost is vastly outweighed by the many benefits an attorney can provide in ensuring your estate administration is carried out as you intend. Despite Aretha Franklin’s vast wealth, her decision not to hire an attorney likely cost her estate and heirs hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and may have permanently divided her children. We can all learn from Aretha’s example. Attorneys at Gensburg Calandriello & Kanter, P.C. are prepared to assist with any estate planning and asset preservation needs you may have to ensure your wishes are carried out.