Touchbutton 93 – ‘Where There’s a Will, There’s a Relative’

The above title is that of the 2007 farce by the American playwright, Roger Karshner. It tells the story of how, on the death of a wealthy entrepreneur, his immediate family have gathered to discuss their inheritance – a meeting that descends into acrimony over the division of property. Much to their chagrin, the family learn that the deceased has left his entire estate to the church.

Recently we have been reminded how important it is to have a will in place that reflects our current intentions by the case of Aretha Franklin, the late great ‘Queen of Soul’.

“….we have been reminded how important it is to have a will in place that reflects our current intentions…”

After an intense battle over the estate of Ms Franklin, a jury in Michigan has finally concluded that a handwritten document found in her sofa in 2018 constitutes a valid will. This document, purportedly from 2014, overrides an earlier (also handwritten) will of 2010, which was apparently found in a locked cabinet in the Detroit home of Ms Franklin after her death.

There are critical differences between these two documents, and it is these inconsistencies that have resulted in three of Ms Franklin’s four sons being involved in protracted legal action for the last five years.

In the meantime, Franklin’s assets, once reportedly valued at $80m when she died in 2018, are now, given more recent estimates and aggregate unpaid taxes, probably worth $6m. Her executors have been paying bills, settling millions in tax debts, and generating income through music royalties and other intellectual property. However, the will dispute has overshadowed much of this work.

No doubt legal action has been expensive for the beneficiaries, and one wonders to what extent the remaining $6m will have been diminished by their own legal fees once the respective estate shares land with them.

Coincidentally, in September this year it will be 170 years since Charles Dickens completed his final episode of ‘Bleak House’, the novel which includes his excoriating satire on the Court of Chancery, through the fictional case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce.

During the novel, it becomes clear that Jarndyce v Jarndyce concerns a large estate, the heirs of which are difficult to determine due to the apparent existence of multiple wills and trusts deriving from these, and which themselves contain many beneficiaries. Jarndyce v Jarndyce has already continued for many generations by the opening of ‘Bleak House’ and by chapter 65, when the correct heirs appear to have finally been established, legal costs have eaten up the whole value of the estate.

“…we have, over the years, seen many instances where wills do not exist, are unclear, or are not properly executed.”

Sadly, plus ça change: we have, over the years, seen many instances where wills do not exist, are unclear, or are not properly executed. Moreover, we have seen examples of estates where there is unnecessary complexity in wills and/or incomplete record keeping. All such instances have led to significant delays and legal expenses to the detriment of the beneficiaries.

Aretha Franklin is perhaps best known for the song ‘Respect’ (1967). The following year she worked with the composer Burt Bacharach on ‘Say A Little Prayer’. Another of Bacharach’s songs, recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1964, was ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’ – a general sentiment that clearly should not inform will and estate planning!

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