The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, died in August at the age of 76. As tragic as it is, I find it
more tragic to learn that she died without a Will. Having been an estate planning attorney for
over 20 years, my stomach aches every time I hear about this. According to a NY Times article,
Aretha was “known to be private and unusually protective of her finances. According to a 2016
profile in the New Yorker, she demanded cash before performing live, and then often kept the
money in a handbag that she kept near her onstage.”
They say that PROCRASTINATION is the number one reason people do not prepare an estate
plan. No one thinks they are going to die soon. And even when you have a health prognosis that
provides you with some time to “get your affairs in order,” often times it still does not get done.
Aretha was survived by her four sons. According to court documents, the sons nominated
Sabrina Owens, a niece of Ms. Franklin, as the estate’s personal representative. She will likely
need to file an “accounting” of the assets of the estate. This is a formal court document that
states the current values of all assets, all income and payments that come into the estate since
the date of death, then subtracted by all of the expenses paid out from the estate. Once there
is a net number, then it is divided equally among her four sons. This entire process will take a
lot of time. And a lot of money. There will be attorneys, court fees, bond fees, valuation fees,
accounting fees and other miscellaneous fees. One of the challenging aspects of Aretha’s estate
is the value of her music collection. What would it be valued at today, considering her estate
will likely be benefiting from the value for many years to come? This also dovetails into estate
taxes. If Aretha’s estate is greater than $11M, then her family would need to file an Estate Tax
Return, and a State Inheritance tax return, and such taxes could be as high as 40% of the gross
value of the estate greater than $11M.
In any event, it will be a long, arduous process. It will be a public process. It can be a
contentious process. Unfortunately, money and family dynamics bring out the worst in people.
My biggest hang up when I hear about these stories is the “what could have been”. What kind
of legacy could Aretha have left had she really thought through who could benefit from her
estate? Could she have created a scholarship in her name for upcoming artists trying to make it
in the business? Could she have given lower-income talented singers a chance to make it in
music? Could she have had a talent agency created in her name that helped people like her?
The possibilities are endless.
Unfortunately the woman who kept her money in a handbag near a stage while she performed,
will not be able to tell us what she would have wanted. You don’t have to be a celebrity to leave
a legacy. We are only here on earth for a short period of time. Make your time count. Plan
ahead. Don’t procrastinate.
About the author
Maritess T. Bott, of Bott & Associates, Ltd. is an estate planning attorney in Rolling Meadows,
Illinois, a Northwest suburb of Chicago. She has been an attorney since 1997, and has helped
hundreds of families have peace of mind by protecting their wealth, and preserving their
relationships. She has been a member of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys
since 2003, a nationally recognized organization of attorneys who specialize in estate planning
and probate. If you are interested in more information, you may check out