Aretha Franklin died more than five years ago, but it wasn’t until this year that a Michigan jury gave her estate planning wishes some respect, holding that a handwritten document discovered under her couch cushions was a valid will. This case illustrates the dangers of so-called “holographic” wills: They often lead to conflict among family members and lengthy court battles.
Initially, the singer’s family thought she had no will, in which case her estate would have been divided equally among her four sons under the laws of intestate succession. A few months after she died, however, the family discovered two handwritten “wills” in her home. The first, dated 2010 and found in a locked cabinet, was signed on each page and notarized. The second, dated 2014, was found in a spiral notebook under her couch cushions and was signed only on the last page. The two documents had conflicting provisions regarding the distribution of her homes, cars, bank accounts, music royalties and other assets, leading to a fight in court among her heirs.
Ultimately, the jury found that the 2014 handwritten document should serve as her will. Michigan, like many states, permits holographic wills. These wills, which need not be witnessed like formal wills, must be signed and dated by the testator and the material portions must be in the testator’s handwriting. In addition, there must be evidence (from the language of the document itself or from elsewhere) that the testator intended the document to be his or her last will and testament.
Holographic wills can be quick, cheap and easy, but they can come at a cost. Absent the advice of counsel and the formalities of a traditional will, handwritten wills tend to invite challenges and interfamily conflict. In addition, because they aren’t prepared by an attorney, holographic wills tend to be less thorough and often contain ambiguous or unclear language.
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