Documentation filed earlier this week in Oakland County probate court in Michigan by Aretha Franklin’s children indicates that she died without a will or a trust. On the forms, a box was checked signaling that “the decedent died intestate”. What does this all mean?
Dying without a Last Will and Testament or a revocable living trust means that a person is intestate and the laws of the state in which they resided at death will spell out who is to receive the assets of the estate. Under Michigan law, Ms. Franklin’s estate will pass equally to her children as she was unmarried at the time of her death. Ms. Franklin’s niece has also requested that she be appointed as the personal representative or executor of the estate. Thus, it appears that the law of unintended consequences may now apply as Ms. Franklin may not have wanted her children to become the beneficiaries. She may have wanted to include charity or friends perhaps even other relatives in her estate plan. She may not have wanted to have her niece serve as the personal representative, a role that presumably will be compensated. But, without a Last Will and Testament or revocable living trust, we will never know what her true wishes were.
It will also be interesting to see how the administration of Ms. Franklin’s estate unfolds now that the process will be a public one. A number of questions will have to be asked and answered, including, but not limited to: What debts does the singer have? Michigan may not have a state level estate tax or inheritance tax, but how will the Federal estate tax be paid? Exemptions from Federal estate tax are high ($11.18 million per person in 2018), and valuations of Ms. Franklin’s will have to be done to determine the total value of her estate. What assets will each beneficiary ultimately receive? Presumably some of the assets are not standard such as royalties from Ms. Franklin’s records. Will an agreement be reached amongst the beneficiaries regarding the management and distribution of the assets? Unfortunately, the process that has begun will be lengthy, likely expensive and could result in the dismantling of a legacy if the process devolves into an ugly court battle similar to what has happened with Prince’s estate when he died without a will. And in the end, all of this uncertainty could have been avoided or at least minimized had Ms. Franklin simply planned, which means “you better think” before you decide you do not need a plan.