Aretha Franklin died on August 16th, 2018. Over a career that spanned almost 50 years she recorded 112 charted hits on Billboard, she had 17 top-10 singles and 100 R & B entries (including 20 number-one R & B singles) making her the most charted female artist of all time. She sold more than 75 million records worldwide and won 18 Grammy Awards. One can only imagine she died with a considerable wealth.
She seemed to have it all. Yet for all her accomplishments and presumed wealth, the Queen of Soul had no will.
As a lifelong musician, I was devastated at the news of Aretha’s death. I grew up listening to her music and playing her songs in bands (and still do to this day.) I imagined myself as her drummer backing her up on “Think” with Ray Charles and the other guys in the Blues Brothers movie. As an estate planning lawyer, I was surprised (but not shocked) to hear Aretha had no will. Many people die without a will, including the rich and famous. In fact, over 50% of Canadians die without a will. The woman who earned the R E S P E C T of tens of millions of music fans died in Michigan, so her estate will be dealt with according to the laws of that state. But what would happen if Aretha lived in Nova Scotia? The answers are found in a provincial statute called the Intestate Succession Act, which governs the estates of people who die without a will.
Without a will, Aretha had no executor, which means that someone would have to apply to the Probate Court to be named personal representative of her estate. Had she been married; her spouse would have been entitled to apply. However, she was twice divorced and unmarried at the time of her death. She had a longtime companion, Willie Wilkerson, but “companions” or common-law spouses don’t qualify (more on that later.) She had four sons, so one or more of them could apply but they would have to live in Nova Scotia to be eligible. If they did not live here – and they don’t, they could still apply, but only if the Public Trustee waived the right to apply in priority to them as non-residents. In this case, the Public Trustee would be unlikely to waive the right given the value of the estate.
Once a personal representative is in place, who gets the Pink Cadillac and all the rest of it? Willie would not receive anything because companions and common law spouses are not recognized under our estate laws. Therefore, the estate would go to the four sons in equal shares outright and unconditionally. If Aretha had died earlier while her children were young, they would inherit her wealth when they turned 19 with no strings attached. Remember, there is no will so there are no trusts.
Because probate (or administration) is required, probate fees would be paid on the value of Aretha’s assets. In addition, all filings at the Probate Court are a matter of public record, so there would be no privacy regarding her estate assets and beneficiaries.
If Aretha had made a will she would have appointed one or more executors of her choosing. She could have dealt with her assets as she saw fit, including creating trusts for some or all of her beneficiaries and giving assets to charities, had she been so inclined. She might have been able to direct certain assets to trusts outside of her estate thereby saving money on probate taxes. Aretha lost these opportunities by not making a will.
When Prince died in 2016 he had no will. In the aftermath of his death over 45 people came forward claiming to be heirs of his estate. The fallout in the Franklin estate remains to be seen. However, I can confidently state that a will, even a simple one, would have provided certainty and direction for Aretha’s family.
Most of us do not have the kind of wealth Aretha and Prince left behind. However, regardless of your worth a will is important to have and will provide you with the peace of mind knowing that your estate will be distributed as you direct.
If you are interested in learning more about preparing your will & estates planning, we have a skilled team of Estates lawyers who would be happy to help.