10 Do's and Don'ts of Estate Planning to Avoid the Same Mistakes Aretha Franklin's Family Made

Updated: Aug 2, 2019

In 2017 R&B Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. The singer left behind an estate reportedly valued at $80,000,000. For the past 9 months, the family has not been able to settle the $80 million dollar estate due to the lack of a written estate plan. Up until this week, everyone involved assumed there was not last will and testament outlining how the singer wanted the assets divided among her heirs and loved ones.

The news broke that multiple handwritten wills had been discovered at the Franklin home. According to news reports, the documents were somewhat illegible, and on written in notebooks, one of which was found beneath a couch cushion. Two others were found in a locked cabinet. The most recent of the three wills from 2014, seemed to indicate her wishes were to divide the assets among her 4 sons. The attorney for the estate was able to review the wills with the family and file them in the probate court in Michigan. At this time the family and the legal team await a hearing regarding the validity of the documents in June of 2019.

The idea of an $80 million dollar estate being divided by way of partially illegible handwritten notes found under a couch cushion seems unfathomable. We are in the age of information and resources at our fingertips. Yet, unfortunately, the story of absent or unacceptable estate planning documents is more common than you think. In 2016 global analytics firm, Gallup conducted a survey that revealed 56% of Americans report not having Last Will and Testament. The data suggests a larger disparity among low-income non-white responders. As the Aretha Franklin estate planning saga unfolds, we are left to wonder if 44% of American will owners have properly and legally executed and filed the documents?

To help you avoid repeating similar mistakes in your estate planning here are some Do's and Don'ts for handling your last will and testament.


1. Seek wise counsel- Seek the help of a professional, ask for referrals to family law or estate planning attorney. Your financial advisor should have several reputable professionals in their network. Another place to find help is the Bar Association in your city. The Bar association will have access to a network of attorneys who can help you determine what you need, where to start, and what laws are in your state.

2. Share with your family- Have a family meeting. Inform the family that you have recorded your Last Will and Testament. You don't need to provide all the details but at the very least share the following:

-Where the documents are kept

-That name of the professional who helped

-Instructions on how to access and transact on the documents when the time come

3. Store your important documents in a clearly marked file- Your important documents should include the following:

- Last Will And Testament

- Life insurance documents

- Healthcare Power of Attorney

- Retirement income documents

- Banking institution documents to include bank locations where accounts are held

4. Do make updates regularly- Update your will whenever life changes for your family. For example:

-Acquire a new asset, jewelry, property, car, copyrights, etc.

-Birth of death of an heir


-Purchase or sale of a house

5. Do consider filing your last will and testament- Many States allow for your last will and testament to be filed with the probate court. This will provide some protection against lost documents, because the last document will be stored in in the database for future retrieval.


Don't write your will on an unofficial document - Avoid things like a notebooks, and napkins. Though a will in this form could be considered valid there is no need to allow this room for error. At the very least use some type of word processor to type the document. you are leaving room for interpretation when it is not written in a more standardized form with clearly outlined intent.

2. Don't store your will in a safe deposit box at the bank- Storing your will in a safety deposit box will make it inaccessible at the time of death. The contents of the box may not be accessed after the death of the owner without a probate court order.

3. Don't execute the last will and hide it - Always notify at least one competent person you trust of the whereabouts of the document. Your family needs to know if the will is under the couch cushions.

4. Don't forget to update and review- As life changes, besure to review and update annually to make sure everything and everyone is included that you intended.

5. Don't allow the probate court to decide- Without a will your entire estate will go to probate which leaves the asset division process up to a court system and will pay no regard to the personal relationships, or sentimental value of your belongings. The process can be lengthy and costly to your loved ones.

Photo Image from BBC.com

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