Hyden, Miron & Foster, PLLC Law Blog

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Aretha Franklin Dies Without Will: What Next?

The “Queen of Soul” passed away last month of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. Aretha Franklin, a pioneer in the music industry, demanded to be paid in cash before performances. Despite knowing of her terminal illness, she did not plan ahead and leave a will. This will undoubtedly make things difficult for her four sons when trying to figure out her net worth and their respective claims to it.

Though she was very wealthy, it’s still not a complete surprise that she died “intestate.” According to one of Franklin’s attorneys, he had urged her many times over the course of years to draft one. “I tried to convince her that she should do not just a will but a trust while she was still alive,” says Don Wilson, a Los Angeles entertainment attorney who worked with Franklin for almost three decades. “She never told me, ‘No, I don’t want to do one.’ Se understood the need. It just didn’t seem to be something she got around to.”

The Roadblock of Facing Our Own Mortality

Many people fail to execute a will because they are afraid to face their own mortality.  According to David J. Bennett, the attorney who worked most closely with Franklin, the following facts have been established as true:

  • At the time of her death, Franklin was not married.

  • She left behind four sons, ages 48 to 63.

  • Her eldest son is incapacitated and represented by a guardian.

  • One of her nieces has accepted the role of executor.

Estate Tax Consequences

Under Michigan law, where Franklin hails from, (and in most states) in the absence of a will, her assets will be equally divided among her children. The documents did not express the worth of Franklin’s estate. It’s estimated that her estate is worth tens of millions of dollars, although it will be in her family’s best interest that the amount is downplayed for tax purposes, while the government will be looking to maximize the amount to serve its own purposes.

Estate Assets

Most of her estate will not be coming from royalties. Most of her songs were composed by someone else. (Certainly her most popular songs were.) Even though songs like “Respect” became massive successes, most royalty payments will go to the song’s author – in this case the estate of Otis Redding.  

Franklin’s assets include several pieces of property in and around Detroit. According to estimates by tax assessors, the property is at least $2 million, though their market value may even be double that amount.

Without a will, it could take years to determine the estate’s value. Once that has been established, the IRS will take any back taxes owed before taxing her estate at a whopping 40% for any assets after $11.2 million.

One thing is for sure though – Franklin would have been unhappy to see her finances aired so publically. As Wilson, her entertainment attorney stated so simply, “She was a private person.”


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