The Queen of Soul, who died at 76, left a lot of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but apparently no will.
Three handwritten documents, dated between 2010 and 2014, were found in Aretha Franklin’s Michigan home in recent months, including one in a spiral notebook found under her couch cushions.
The latest, dated March 2014, appears to give the famous singer’s assets to family members. Her handwriting is hard to decipher, however, with words scratched out and writing in the margins.
Franklin isn’t the only famous person who died without a clear will. Prince, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Hughes and President Abraham Lincoln also left this mortal coil without a valid will and estate plan, according to “Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights.”
When actor Heath Ledger died at 28 in 2008, his will left everything to his parents and three sisters. Ledger’s will had been written before his daughter, Matilda, was born.
The situation left the then 2-year-old and her mother, the actress Michelle Williams, with nothing. Ledger’s family later gave all the money from the estate to Ledger’s daughter.
States typically restrict handwritten — or “holographic” — wills, to help protect against fraud and to ensure your documents distribute an estate accurately and reflect your true intent, according to Caitlin McAndrews of the McAndrews, Mehalick, Connolly, Hulse, Ryan & Marone law firm, founded in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.
An easy way to get started on your will
Most law firms and accountants have estate questionnaires you can fill out with basic information. What’s your and your spouse’s Social Security numbers, address and assets? Did you sign a prenup? Did you buy life insurance? What are your basic wishes? Who would you want as your executor? Who would you name as guardian for your children?
Then there’s your online presence. Dying without a will is known as being “intestate.” Prevent the problem of “cyber intestacy,” or failure to plan for one’s online and social media accounts.
Just as when someone dies without a will, automatic bill payments and electronic bank withdrawals continue after death, and heirs may struggle to access photographs and email. By including digital estate plans in your will, you name who should have access to your online accounts.
Add a “digital-asset” clause and recommend an inventory of digital assets, including those with value, such as frequent flier miles, PayPal and other accounts, and even cryptocurrency.
Remember, if you don’t make out a will, the state where you live decides for you. And each state has different statutes specifying who gets your property if you have no will, according to Mary Lew Kehm, a CPA and liaison for the Pennsylvania Society of Tax and Accounting Professionals.
“I always tell my clients that you do have a will. The state wrote it for you, and if you don’t like it, you need to write your own,” she noted.
She uses the website www.mystatewill.com, where you can see who would receive your property if you die without a will.
Life insurance policies and IRAs are handled separately from your will.
These have their own beneficiary designations, and forms must be on file with your insurer and retirement account companies. These beneficiary designations bypass anything indicated in a will, said David Zalles, a certified public accountant based in Blue Bell.
“This is especially important for the unmarried millennials and Gen Xers, divorcés, widows and widowers,” he added, since many may not have specified a beneficiary as single people.
Don’t forget the pets
You can include your pets in your will — and you should. Your heirs may not want your animals otherwise and your furry friends may be euthanized without any plan for them in your will.
You can sign a “pet protection agreement” with or without a lawyer. Such agreements are valid during the pet owner’s lifetime, as well as after death. The website Legal Zoom has online samples.
Some pet owners with substantial assets (think Leona Helmsley) have set up prefunded trusts. Formal pet trusts are not common, but they do exist. Some states also have statutes providing for care of animals.