When Aretha Franklin died in Detroit on August 16, it was widely reported that she left an estate worth approximately $80 million -- and no will. It's a curious development in the story of a woman whose 60-year career started in her early teens and was known to have a firm grip on her purse strings.
The legendary Queen of Soul died at age 76 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, and was survived by four sons. Given the fights that frequently erupt among family members over the estates of celebrities who do actually leave a will behind, Franklin's decision not to write a will could mean trouble in the future.
Or maybe not.
Cash and Carry
From her earliest days singing in clubs to her final performances, Franklin allegedly demanded at least part of her payment up front and in cash. It's been widely reported that Franklin allegedly then tucked the money in her purse and either brought it on stage with her or entrusted it to one of her personal security guards.
Franklin had seen too many of her contemporaries cheated out of fees and royalties, so even when she had a team of business people working for her, she allegedly wanted her money handed to her personally and in cash. According to a performance contract widely circulated online, Franklin allegedly required $25,000 cash handed directly to her before the performance, the rest to be paid by check.
In death, as in life, Franklin may have also planned the distribution of her estate in her own inimitable way because her family seems to be on the same page -- at least so far.
The Detroit News reported that Franklin's attorney filed papers in probate court indicating that her four sons had agreed to the appointment of Franklin's niece, Sabrina V. Garrett Owens, as the personal representative of her estate.
Michigan law will also play a role in keeping the peace. In the absence of a surviving spouse, Franklin's assets will be divided equally among her four children, according to the Michigan statute on intestate succession. It's been noted, however, that one of her four sons may have special needs and may need financial support for the rest of his life, so while the four-way equal distribution seems "fair," it may not be the one that best fits the needs of her heirs. Nor does it appear that Franklin put any trusts or other vehicles in place to reduce the impact of taxes on her estate or to provide specifically for her alleged special needs child.
Even when there are no simmering family disputes, settling a music icon's large, complex estate can lead to conflict over managing both the finances and the star's legacy.
As Forbes pointed out, Franklin's executor and heirs will have to grapple with an array of licensing and publicity rights related to the singer's considerable body of work. Franklin's recordings will generate royalties for years, if not generations. How will that be managed? How will her heirs deal with offers for biopics, documentaries, books, and other works chronicling Franklin's life? How will requests to license Franklin-related products be handled? How will publicity rights be determined?
Franklin's personal representative and heirs will have many complicated and far-reaching financial decisions to make.