Handwritten wills shake up estate of Aretha Franklin

Massachusetts law requires a will to follow strict rules of formality. One of the most essential requirements is that it be signed in the presence of witnesses. The witnesses can attest to the fact the signature was valid and that the person creating the will appeared to be of sound mind and not improperly pressured or influenced by others.

When no witness is on hand during the signing of a will, it can be hard for the court to know that the will is a valid reflection of the person's wishes. A recent example from another state helps illustrate this issue.

When the beloved soul singer Aretha Franklin died last year, her family members said they believed she left no will. Her four sons unanimously agreed to make Franklin's niece the executor to her estate, which was to be divided between the four sons, according to the laws of her home state, Michigan. However, the niece recently said she found two, or possibly even three wills stashed in various places around Franklin's home.

Under some circumstances, Michigan courts can accept handwritten wills, known as holographic wills, even when they are signed without the presence of witnesses. The three documents are written in the late singer's handwriting, and include many notes, underlines, strikethrough text and drawings, leaving them hard to decipher. Two of them appear to be from 2010, and the other from 2014.

If the court rules one or more of them valid, the documents will appoint a different executor to the estate and will distribute houses to only three of Franklin's four sons. The documents also include criticisms of some of her sons, and no doubt have the potential to stir up personal and legal disputes.

People who are planning their estates in Massachusetts often get frustrated with the difficult language and formalities of the process, but these requirements are there for good reasons. Courts need to know that the wills and other estate planning documents are valid and accurate. It's important to get help from a skilled estate planning attorney when creating your plan.

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