Aretha Franklin’s estate: are handwritten notes valid wills?

June 11, 2019 Sydney Osmar Estate & Trust, Estate Litigation, In the News, Wills Tags: 0 Comments

It has been almost one year since the music industry and fans around the world lost Aretha Franklin.  It was previously believed that Franklin died without a will, leaving an estate valued at approximately $80 million USD to be distributed under Michigan’s intestate succession laws.

However, recent reports indicate that three handwritten notes, which may be wills, have been located. Two are reportedly from 2010 and were found in a locked cabinet, with the third dated March 2014, found under cushions in Franklin’s living room.

The three handwritten notes have been filed, and a hearing will take place on June 12, 2019 to determine their validity.

From a cursory review of the applicable Michigan authorities, it appears that a will is a holograph Will (referred to as “holographic wills” in Michigan), whether or not it is witnessed, if it is (1) dated, and (2) the testator’s signature and the document’s material portions are in the testator’s handwriting. It appears that in Michigan, a holograph will may remain valid, even if some portions of the document are not in the testator’s handwriting, but the testator’s intent can be established by extrinsic evidence.

In contrast, pursuant to Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act (“SLRA”), to be a valid holograph will the document  must be (1) “wholly” in the testator’s own handwriting, (2) signed by the testator and (3) constitute a full and final expression of the testator’s intent regarding the disposition of his or her assets, on death. The SLRA does not require the document to be dated, as is required in Michigan, however both jurisdictions do not require the formal presence, attestation or signature of a witness for a holograph will to be found valid.

In Ontario, and Canada generally, steps are being taken within the legal community in attempts to solve ongoing issues of identifying missing or competing wills. Online will registries are being created so that lawyers and trust companies can upload basic information about the wills they are storing.

The Canada Will Registry’s website indicates that when a user is looking for a will, the site will publish a Knowledge of Will notice, and the lawyer or trust company storing the will (if it has been registered) will be automatically alerted. According to the website, the intent behind the registry is to replace the various search tools currently available with one comprehensive tool.

While such a tool would not have assisted in locating Franklin’s handwritten notes, it represents how the advance of technology can be used to simplify necessary steps regularly taken by estate practitioners, such as the process of locating missing or competing wills.

Technology aside, it will be interesting to see whether or not the Court will find any of Franklin’s handwritten notes to be valid holograph wills.

Thanks for reading!

Sydney Osmar

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