Lack of planning leads to mess


“I was after her for a number of years to do a trust. It would have expedited things and kept them out of probate and kept things private.”

— Don Wilson, Aretha Franklin’s attorney

“To the well organized-mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

— Albus Dumbledore from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”

In August of 2018, as we were making funeral arrangements after my father had passed away, I also heard the news that the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who died the day before my father, had left a $100 million estate and no will. In fact, it was reported that she had left no estate planning directions at all. The dichotomy between my father’s careful planning and Franklin’s lack of it, led me to use the issue as the subject of my column in the Gazette that week — not just the importance of estate planning for the benefit of the person making the will, but also for the benefit of those they leave behind.

When a person dies with a will, the will acts as instructions to the probate court and to the person’s heirs, as to how the person would like to see his or her possessions divided. A home, cars, bank accounts, treasured possessions, stocks, life insurance policies, retirements funds, and just about everything else a person owns can be divided up based on specific instructions left in a will.

But when a person dies without leaving instructions, then state law and the local court system will make decisions about how that same property should be divided. And that division may not be the way the person wanted it. Ask yourself — would you rather you decide, during your lifetime, where your possessions should go, or would you rather that a probate judge decide it for you after you’re gone? A good estate plan can also help you simplify the probate process, or eliminate the need for it all together.

When my folks sold the family home in Buffalo and relocated full-time to Florida 10 years ago, I encouraged them to see an attorney in the Sunshine State to make sure that their estate plans conformed to Florida law. As a result of that planning, their home, their car, their bank accounts — all were set up in such a way that they automatically transferred to my mother without the need for lengthy, expensive, or public court proceedings. And if court proceedings had been necessary, my father would have left detailed instructions for the court. Furthermore, because my brother and I reviewed their wills before they were signed, we had discussed the estate plans in advance, and there were no surprises or disagreements.

Estate planning is surprisingly inexpensive and can be done quickly. And while thinking about our own mortality and planning for it can be uncomfortable, there is a distinct peace of mind that comes from knowing that we have planned for every circumstance. Delaware County has many, many fine lawyers who would be happy to assist in estate planning.

The disparity between these two cases is again instructive. I flew down to Florida to help make sure everything was taken care of with the car title and their home deed. The entire thing took my mother and I just a few hours on a single day. Final preparations for his memorial service took significantly longer than anything legally connected to his estate.

But just a month shy of five years after her death, the court hearing to decide how Aretha Franklin’s estate (now valued at far, far less than the original $100 million) will be divided, finally began in a Michigan courtroom this Monday. And her lack of clarity with her children has caused even more mayhem than I could have envisioned back in 2018.

That’s because when her sons began to go through her home, they found several documents that might have been wills, or at least the start of a will. Two were from 2010, and another, dated 2014 and found inside a spiral notebook stuffed under the cushions of a sofa, are now before a six-person jury in an Oakland County, Michigan courtroom, in a trial that may be over before this column comes to print. Three of Franklin’s four sons are fighting over those documents (the fourth is in an assistant living facility and not a participant), and her niece previously quit as court-appointed administrator of the estate due to the ugliness of the fight.

Franklin had pancreatic cancer and certainly knew she was dying. I don’t know her reasons for not doing so, but she had ample time to make an estate plan, properly document it, and make sure her family knew its details so that there was no fight. And you can, too. This is the message I give every time that Clerk of Courts Natalie Fravel, County Recorder Melissa Jordan, and I deliver our Good Deeds program — that a little bit a planning goes a long way to making sure that your wishes are fulfilled, and that your family does not suffer through a protracted fight after you are gone.

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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