On August 16, 2018, Aretha Franklin passed away at the age of 76. After leading an accomplished life and accumulating significant wealth, Ms. Franklin passed away without a proper estate plan in place. Upon searching her home, her family found two handwritten wills among her possessions.

The first will, dated in 2010, was found with her important documents, while the second, dated in 2014, was found under her sofa cushion in a notebook. Both wills outlined conflicting wishes.

The 2010 will was a detailed document that split her estate evenly amongst her children.  The second will favored some children over others. The discrepancies between the two wills resulted in a five-year court battle. In July 2023, after a two-day long trial, a jury determined that the 2014 will should serve as Ms. Franklin’s official will.

The legal drama and family fighting could have all been easily been avoided if Ms. Franklin had written a proper estate plan. Below, are some tips to consider when deciding to create your estate plan.

1. Hire an attorney to assist you.

Some states recognize handwritten/holographic wills and others may consider these types of wills after the court decides whether the handwritten document was what a person “intended” to be their last will and testament.

In Ms. Franklin’s case, the court decided that the 2014 document was what she intended to be her last will and testament.

While some courts will uphold a handwritten/holographic will, others won’t. It’s important to understand your state’s specific laws and parameters regarding handwritten wills.

In Washington D.C. and Maryland, the Court will generally uphold a handwritten will if it is witnessed by two credible witnesses.

In Virginia, a handwritten will will generally be upheld by the court as long as the document meets two requirements. 

First, the will must be fully written and signed by the testator, or the person drafting the will.  Second, the handwritten will must be signed by two disinterested witnesses who will attest that the will was written by the testator.

The court must also uphold the contents in the will and a person’s intentions.  This may be difficult in some scenarios such as incidences where there is illegible handwriting or where there aren’t any witnesses to the will.

When an estate plan is prepared by an attorney, the plan is dated, witnessed, notarized, and signed as a person’s last will and testament. Additionally, attorneys are aware of state specific laws that prevent a court from invalidating a person’s last wishes.

With proper assistance, you could very well create the plan you envision without the possibility of that plan being invalidated by the court in your state. 

2. When updating your estate plan, destroy your previous documents in order to avoid confusion.

In Aretha Franklin’s case, her children saw both documents.  This led to familial tension as one child favored the 2010 document while the other two favored the 2014 document.

Finding multiple wills in a home can cause confusion and in Aretha’s case caused severe family tension and a five-year ongoing battle in court. The last thing we want is for our estate plan to divide our family. 

Leaving a detailed and well laid out plan is very important. Having multiple documents with different instructions can cause great confusion and cause the destruction of close family relationships.

When you update your estate plan, you should always destroy your previous documents and store your new documents in a safe place, that is accessible to those who will be handling your affairs once you’ve passed away.

If you decide to seek professional advice for an estate plan, instead of destroying documents, your attorney may be able to amend your document in a quick and easy way, so that you do not have to constantly destroy important documents.

3. Store your estate plan in a safe place.

In Ms. Franklin’s case, one of her wills was found under a sofa cushion. It is of the upmost importance to store estate planning documents in a safe place such as a fireproof safe in your home.

We discourage people from placing these important documents in a safety deposit box at your bank because it is very unlikely that the people named in an estate plan can access those documents in a timely manner if at all.

Additionally, it is great practice to make those people chosen as successors aware of the location of the documents in the event they need to access them. This ensures your wishes are followed at all times.

Here at the Hill Law Group, we are more than happy to create an estate plan that fits you and your family’s needs. 

Please reach out to us for more information at info@thehilllawgroup.com