Opinion: Clash over Aretha Franklin’s estate shows why planning can’t wait

Atlanta estate planner says ‘everyone thinks they have tomorrow’ to document final wishes

After almost five years of conflict, heirs of Aretha Franklin’s estate finally have clear word on the singer’s final wishes. Earlier this month, a Michigan jury said a handwritten document found in Franklin’s sofa cushions is a valid will.

When Franklin died of pancreatic cancer in 2018 at age 76, relatives assumed she had not left a will. But a search of Franklin’s suburban Michigan home uncovered several documents that appeared to be her wills, all handwritten on different dates with different directives.

The confusion over their mother’s last wishes sent three of her sons to court. Two were mostly aligned on a will written in 2014, according to reports from the Associated Press, while another son believed a 2010 document should be upheld as valid. A fourth son lives under guardianship in an assisted living facility and was not part of the case.

A half-decade and a whole lot of legal fees later, the issue is resolved.

Along with other high profile celebrities who have died without a will — Prince, Tony Hsieh of Zappos fame and Pablo Picasso — Franklin’s story should serve as a wake-up call to Americans, many of whom don’t have their final wishes written down.

“Everyone thinks they have tomorrow,” said Anitra Walker, an estate planner based in Atlanta. “It doesn’t feel like an emergency.

Walker gives Franklin credit for knowing that she needed to have her legal affairs in order. The problem was, Franklin left multiple documents that were inconsistent, and she didn’t seek the assistance of an attorney in the process.

According to 2021 data from a Gallup poll, 46% of Americans have a will but that number is lower for people who are under 50, non-white and not college graduates.

“I almost wish it wasn’t called estate planning,” Walker said. “When you put the word estate in it, people automatically think mansions and Rolls Royces.” When she talks to her clients about what an estate actually is – tangibles like cars and houses but also intangibles like insurance, stocks and more – they begin to realize they have assets worth protecting.

I asked Nicola Robinson, co-founder of SR Law Group in Douglasville, why so many Americans are lagging in their estate planning.

“People don’t have an understanding of what it is and why it is important,” said Robinson, who also hosts a podcast called “Black Parents Aging” to help further the conversation about managing elder care and estate planning. Robinson and her law partner, Olivia Smith, also visit churches and work with social groups to spread the word about the importance of estate planning.

“If you are over the age of 18, it is time to start thinking about estate planning,” Robinson said. “A lot of people are focused on where my things will go when I die, but estate planning also encompasses naming a health care agent and naming who is going to have power of attorney to make decisions if you are unable to do so.”

Robinson said her job is to walk clients through a plan and offer suggestions for things they may not have considered. She gives clients options, one of which is to do nothing, and she explains what that scenario might look like as well.

Like Franklin, some people may want to take a do-it-yourself route to estate planning, but that comes with challenges. Laws are constantly changing and any online DIY service should be up to date on state law and offer access to an attorney to talk about your specific situation, Walker said.

Just like laws, life also changes. It’s never a good idea to assume that estate planning is a one and done situation. “It takes people so long to get to the point of doing a will or trust, and, in the back of their minds, they think they are done,” Walker said. “You need to revisit every three to five years to see if it is still on par with your life or any life changes.”

Anyone who is finding it hard to get started can consider taking the process in steps. Start with a health care directive, which gives someone the authority to make decisions about your health if you are not able to and a durable power of attorney, which allows someone to make decisions about your finances and property if you are incapacitated, Walker said. Shortly after, you should look into setting up a will or trust. Then you can move into strategizing ways to create generational wealth for your heirs.

Georgia is not one of the most complex states when it comes to probate (the process that occurs if you die without a will), but the time and expense can have a major impact on assets. “We are seeing cases coming out of the pandemic take 18 months to two years sometimes,” said Robinson.

In that span of time, things can go sideways. Children may inherit a home, for example, but not have enough money to make mortgage payments. They may wish to sell right away, but they can’t because the asset is stuck in probate.

Franklin valued her privacy when not on the stage, according to her former manager quoted in a 2019 New York Times story. Ironically, her private affairs became public fodder because she chose to direct her final wishes on her own.

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