“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.”
— J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”
In the midst of our Probate Court seminar on Wednesday of last week, I saw the news that Aretha Franklin, whose estate is reportedly worth as much as $100 million, had left no will to guide how that estate should be divided among her heirs. I knew, immediately, that this week’s column would focus on the importance of estate planning, not only for the benefit of the person making the will, but also for the benefit of those they leave behind.
At the time, I had no idea how the course of the column would change in less than 24 hours, nor how personal the subject would become before the following morning was over.
On Thursday, while conducting the second of our weekly traffic court sessions, I noticed that my cell phone was vibrating repeatedly in my suit coat pocket. I quickly finished the court session, stepped into my office, and noticed that the multiple calls had been from my mother in Florida. She was calling to tell me that my father, six weeks shy of his 79th birthday, had passed away at Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville.
As the day went on, and I fought to keep my emotions in check while completing the remainder of my court hearings, it occurred to me that the dichotomy between the estate planning that my parents had done, and the lack of estate planning in the estates of several famous persons, could be an instructive and cautionary tale, and a good encouragement to others to make sure their affairs are in order, regardless of their age or health. My mother even strongly encouraged me to use their experience to suggest that others be prepared.
Aretha Franklin died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 16. Her funeral will be held today in Detroit, more than two weeks after her death. The delay in the disposition of her remains, and the very public accounting of her financial life in a Michigan probate court that will soon follow, are two of the consequences of her lack of estate planning. Her four sons stand to inherit her wealth and rights to her likeness and musical library, but they will be forced to litigate the matter in a very open setting. Franklin’s niece has also filed court papers asking that she be appointed administrator of the estate instead of Franklin’s sons.
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 a few 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 transfer to my mother without the need for lengthy, expensive, or public court proceedings. And where court proceedings are necessary, my father will 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.
My father spent 36 years as a teacher, principal and administrator in the Buffalo Public School System. He passed on to his sons his two strongest beliefs: First, that there is no greater or more rewarding way to improve the world around you than to improve conditions for the next generation; and second, that there are few situations in life that cannot be improved by laughter and joy. If I can succeed in fulfilling those two goals half as well as he did, then I will begin the “next great adventure’ knowing that this one was a success.”
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas and vice president of the Board of Trustees of the Central Ohio Symphony.