The battle over the dueling wills left by the late superstar singer Aretha Franklin has again shed light on the importance of legalizing an individual’s final wishes.
Earlier this month, a Michigan jury deemed a handwritten note in 2014 by the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, her official last will and testament.
The jury rendered its decision after an intense legal battle that pitted family members against one another over the inheritance of the legendary singer’s estate.
Franklin’s two sons, Kecalf and Edward Franklin, enlisted the assistance of their legal representatives to champion the cause of a will found dated in 2014, ardently contending that it should supersede a separate will crafted in 2010.
Their brother Ted White II stood firm, citing the 2010 will, safeguarded under lock and key within the confines of Franklin’s sprawling home.
The crux of the contentious dispute lay in the divergent provisions outlined in the two conflicting wills.
It underscored that estate planning issues had become particularly significant for African Americans, irrespective of their socioeconomic status or fame, as they continue to lag in preparing their estates.
According to a recent Gallup poll, a mere 46% of U.S. adults possess a valid will to determine the distribution of their assets after death.
The number is even lower for Black Americans, with only 70% having a will in place.
Kenneth Kelly, chairman and CEO of First Independence Bank, recently told EBONY that cultural factors contribute to this disparity.
“If you look back over time and the history we have come from, a lot of people may say or use a term that they ‘come from nothing,’” Kelly explained.
“And typically, that doesn’t mean values; it just means that we may have had very little material belongings.”
Over time, he said, that perspective has eroded Black Americans’ possessions, including financial assets, homes, land and other valuable assets.
Kelly highlights the importance of proper estate planning, as historical issues such as displacement of property have negatively impacted Black Americans.
Kelly also emphasized making wiser decisions when caring for loved ones. Over the next 25 years, approximately $70 trillion is expected to transfer from the deceased to the living, representing one of the most significant transfers of wealth associated with death, especially for African Americans.
Kelly urged individuals to consider the value of even modest assets, such as a $30,000 house or ancestral land, and avoid undervaluing them.
A 2022 Consumer Reports study revealed that a significant percentage of racial and ethnic groups, including Black Americans (77%) and Hispanic people (82%), do not have a will, compared to 61% of white individuals and 67% of English-speaking Asians.
The reasons vary, including the assumption of inadequate assets (25%), uncertainty about the process (20%), desire for automatic transfer to next of kin (9 percent), feeling too young (23%), or simply avoiding thoughts of mortality (12%).
Financial planners assert that a will allows individuals to specify the beneficiaries of their assets and appoint an executor to ensure their wishes are carried out.
Rasheda Williams, who recently experienced the probate process after several family members passed away without wills, said individuals often underestimate their assets and fail to include items like vehicles and family keepsakes in their wills.
Additionally, assumptions that all assets will automatically pass to the next of kin can lead to significant complications and expenses, as the probate process can still be required.
Consumer Reports noted that when a person dies without a will, the state’s laws determine the distribution of assets based on assumptions about the deceased’s preferences.
However, that approach may not align with a person’s wishes, and complications can arise, especially in cases involving minor children or non-traditional family structures.
Experts recommend creating a will to ensure that assets are distributed precisely as desired.
Free resources like FreeWill.com offer guidance through the process, while online services such as LegalZoom or Trust & Will provide affordable options ranging from $100 to a few hundred dollars.
When someone dies without a will, state law where they lived will determine where assets will go, according to assumptions about what the deceased would have chosen, David Dufault, an estate planning attorney at Sodoma Law in Charlotte, N.C, told Consumer Reports.
“There can be issues with minors receiving property, issues with the deceased person not naming his/her choice to raise minor children (absent a surviving parent), and the state choosing who will ‘supervise’ the process,” Dufault said in the report.
“And if you die without a will and your family doesn’t have the ‘typical’ mom, dad, and kids nuclear family structure, it could be more likely that your assets won’t go where you want them to go,” added Marty Shenkman, a New York lawyer and board member of the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils.