A Michigan jury decided that a handwritten piece of paper from 2014—nestled under a couch cushion in the late Aretha Franklin’s home—was a valid will, despite the unorthodox storage method and the existence of an older will that had been notarized. The case raises some interesting questions. Is it OK to handwrite a will? Where should you keep it? And how would it have turned out if Franklin had lived in Minnesota?
At First, a Mystery
Originally, Aretha Franklin’s family thought she had no will when she died in 2018, meaning her property would have been divided equally among her four sons. Months later, they found two handwritten wills: one inside a locked cabinet dated 2010 and the four-page couch-cushion will that was drafted in 2014. Neither was prepared with the assistance of an attorney nor included the signatures of attesting witnesses, although the 2010 will was notarized. A jury decided on July 11 that the later, couch-cushion will was in fact the valid document to control distribution of Aretha Franklin's $80 million dollar estate.
The 2014 will that the jury decided would control the estate gave Franklin’s $1.1 million home to her son, Kecalf, and his grandchildren, and did not include a provision from the earlier will requiring Kecalf and another son, Edward, to take business classes or receive a degree to inherit from the estate.
Minnesota Law on Handwritten Wills
Many states around the country, including Minnesota and Franklin’s home state of Michigan, recognize handwritten wills that comply with state requirements. Under Minnesota law, a will must be signed by the will-maker and also signed by two people who witnessed the will-maker’s signing. Other states, such as Michigan, do not always require witnesses.
Even if Minnesota courts do not normally recognize wills that were not witnessed, they will do so if the will is valid in a state that permitted them at the time the will was drafted. This situation might apply to someone who was staying part of the year in their Minnesota cabin or living in Minnesota at the time of their death but drafted a valid will elsewhere.
Handwritten or typed, however, both of Franklin’s wills would likely have been considered invalid in Minnesota, as neither were witnessed. As a result, distribution of the singer's estate would be entirely controlled by Minnesota inheritance laws, and each of her sons would inherit equally.
The Battle of the Wills
If both wills had been properly executed, how would a Minnesota court have determined whether a later will merely changes an earlier will or, instead, completely revokes and replaces it?
In Minnesota, absent an explicit statement, a new will is presumed to fully replace and revoke a previous will if it distributes all of the will-maker’s assets. On the other hand, a later will is presumed to only supplement the earlier will if it does not include (and distribute) all of the will-maker’s property.
Importantly, however, these presumptions may be overcome by clear and convincing evidence that the will-maker intended something else. Therefore, in Minnesota, in the absence of clear and convincing evidence showing otherwise, Aretha Franklin’s couch-cushion will would completely replace the 2010 will, because it disposed of the entirety of her estate.
What You Can Do
The legal dispute over Aretha Franklin’s wills provides valuable lessons. Minnesota law requires that wills be drafted with certain formalities—including two witnesses, a signature of the will-maker, and the date. If you draft a new will intending to replace an old will, that intention should be stated. It's wise to be as clear as possible about all of your intentions in the document.
Taxes are another important consideration, especially with sizeable estates like Aretha Franklin’s. Had she consulted an attorney, her estate might have benefited from tax planning. Parents of children who are eligible for government benefits should also obtain advice on how to supplement their child’s benefits while not affecting the child's eligibility.
Finally, don't put your will under a couch cushion. It's best to keep it in a fireproof, waterproof safe in your home, and make sure your loved ones know where and how to access the document.
We Can Help
Don’t leave your estate planning to chance. Maslon’s estate planning attorneys use their extensive experience and expertise to help clients ensure that all of the legal formalities of a will are met.
If your family is in a dispute over the validity of a family member’s estate planning, our trusted team of trust & estate litigation attorneys can walk you through the legal process.
Please contact us for assistance.
Summer associate Dany Berbari contributed to this article.
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2023/07/11/aretha-franklin-will-dispute/; https://apnews.com/article/aretha-franklin-will-dispute-d7aba286b05ea0d0e6318ce6abc887d5
 Minn. Stat. § 524.2-502
 Minn. Stat. § 524.2-502
 Minn. Stat. § 524.2-506
 Minn. Stat. § 524.2-507 (c)
 Minn. Stat. § 524.2-507 (d)
 Minn. Stat. § 524.2-507 (c)-(d)