Insights & Market Outlook

Estate Admin

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Has watching a great artist ever made you cry?

It happens to me fairly often.

If Andrew is around, he will ask with concern, “Hey hon, you okay?” as a fat tear rolls down my face.

I love being moved by immense talent and I recently had that experience as I was researching, of all things, Aretha Franklin’s estate.

Midway through I had the good fortune of stumbling on the video of Franklin singing at the 2009 Inauguration of President Obama.

Wow.

You should watch it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJA1QRND3aw

Anyway, back to estate administration and the unfortunate reality that Aretha Franklin – a warrior for social justice, dubbed the Queen of Soul, and whose single, “Respect” topped the 2021 Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time as #1 – died in August of 2018 without a will. At least, they thought there was no will but in 2019,  two handwritten wills were found in the sofa.

There are all sorts of interesting points about Franklin’s estate – valued initially at over $80 million- but for today, let’s just look at who was supposed to administer (ie look after and ultimately divide up) the estate:

  • When it looked like there was no will, the family was unanimous in its selection of Sabrina Owens, a well-respected family member (Franklin’s niece) who had not only worked in the entertainment business herself but who also had worked for 25 years in the Michigan Probate Court. Sounded perfect!
  • But when the handwritten wills were found – one naming Franklin’s son, Kecalf, to be the executor – the family started to argue, creating what Sabrina soon referred to as a “toxic bullying” environment. She resigned in 2019.
  • With Kecalf in place, the disputes escalated such that in 2023, temporary co-executors were named by the court to take over dealing with ongoing issues. The litigation continues.

I have two points:

  • A solid will that makes sense is always a good thing. Some people may not like its contents, some people may think the deceased should have made different decisions, but a clear roadmap never fails to make an estate administration better, regardless of the estate’s size.
  • Who you appoint to run the show (ie be the executor/estate trustee) is one of the most important decisions in a will and regardless of a person’s qualifications or experience or relationship to the deceased, it is an emotionally demanding job, not to mention time-consuming and technically difficult.

And I also have three questions for you:

  1. Do you understand how your assets are owned (ie their legal and beneficial titles) and how these assets will be transferred on your death? Could you explain your estate plan to someone else?
  2. If your estate planning includes a will appointing an executor/estate trustee, do you understand all the duties and responsibilities – and do they?

When we read about celebrities’ estate mistakes, it is easy to shake our heads and judge…. but lots of us skip reflecting on the very same issues.

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