What's Worse Than Having No Will? Ask Aretha Franklin’s Family

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Estate planning matters. Not having a will can leave surviving family members to struggle with legal complexities, increased costs, and strained relationships as they make decisions that they can only hope the deceased would have approved. It adds pain and heartache. I have previously described failing to make a will as a last act of unkindness bestowed on one’s loved ones. One thing worse than dying without a will is dying with the wrong will. As your life changes with marriages, births, and deaths, an existing will may no longer carry out your wishes. Children or stepchildren may not be provided for, your support for charities may have changed, or increased wealth may call for more complex estate planning. Review your will every few years to see whether updates are needed.

Recently, I came across another example of something worse than having no will – having two scribbled-up, hard-to-decipher, handwritten wills that contradict each other. This was the case with the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin, who was famous for many hits such as “Think,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Respect.” When she died in 2018, she left two handwritten wills that were found the following year. One, written in 2010, was found in a cabinet. Another, written in 2014, was in a notebook under the cushions in her sofa.

Her first mistake was obvious. Stuffed in a sofa or hidden in a cabinet are not ideal ways to store any will. Important documents need to be stored securely, in a place known to the executor, with copies given to trusted advisors. To her credit, at least Aretha listened to her attorney’s advice that she needed a will. Don Wilson, an entertainment lawyer who represented her for many years, insisted she have a will, according to an article from the Associated Press that appeared on July 11, 2023. He was quoted as saying, “But she was a very private person and I think she didn’t want to share that information with another individual, such as an attorney ... she went ahead and wrote them up herself.” That was her second mistake. Her third mistake was not invalidating the previous 2010 will when she wrote a new one in 2014. An attorney will make sure a client writes “voided” across an old will, with the date and their initials. Her fourth mistake was not finding a professional advocate who she trusted to do the job right.