Aretha Franklin died leaving no will, $80M, and four adult sons
Recently Aretha Franklin died without a will. Various news outlets estimated her estate is worth $80M. She died several years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, leaving behind four sons, one with serious disabilities. As a lawyer it strikes me as bizarre that someone so wealthy, and with such a long, complex career (that must have included working with many lawyers on contracts, IP issues and other matters) did not seek out advice on her will, was not offered it, or simply declined to deal with it.
Dying intestate can create delays and conflict
Legally, not making a will is a bad decision. Rather than providing guidance on management of assets, division of assets, and the like, the estate is now turned over to a court appointed executor. Every state has its own laws of succession and will apply those laws in the absence of a will. With an estate as complex as Franklin’s, the executor will use his or her discretion to make many decisions about what to sell, what to keep, and how to divide the assets. It is not a straightforward task. The financial consequences for the heirs are significant; an executor can request compensation for his or her time and may make decisions that result in lowering the value of the estate. Hopefully Franklin’s four children get along well and can work that through settlement of her estate amicably, but there is ample opportunity for conflict.
Writing a will can mean tackling old conflicts
Although I see the decision not to write a will as a poor legal choice, as a mediator I can imagine why Franklin declined to have a will. Approximately half of all Americans die without leaving a will. Certainly many of them may believe their assets are small enough that no will is warranted, but many wealthy people also die intestate. Writing a will requires grappling with family dynamics and delving into the many conflicts that inevitably crop up over the course of a life. Especially for people with significant assets, it requires a clear eyed assessment of one’s beneficiaries. Some children can inherit wealth and manage that responsibility effectively, other children may have trouble handling money, or struggle with substance abuse or mental health issues. It is hard to think about whether it is best to treat all potential heirs the same, or put restrictions, like a trust, in place for heirs who may squander an inheritance. If a trust seems necessary, then another layer of decision making is needed–who will manage the trust? who will serve as a trustee? who is willing to serve as a trustee?
Clarity provides security and minimizes conflicts
It is hard to tackle family conflict and think about what will help in the future, especially a future that the person writing the will won’t participate in. It is tempting to focus on the present and not worry about the future, “let them sort it out.” While it is true the deceased won’t be there to see the conflict in the future, the heirs will be living out a conflict that was constructed by the deceased. The conflict will center around “what they would have wanted.” Without guidance on that question, conflict can grow exponentially. Recently a friend who is unmarried and has no children confided he would like to leave his inheritance to his goddaughter, but he has no will. He is a wealthy, older man, who happens to be a lawyer, with no will and an inheritance plan that runs completely counter to the state’s traditional laws of succession. Of course, if he dies intestate, his wish will not be fulfilled. He obviously knows this, and yet has not written his will. But he has shared this desire with many friends, and presumably his goddaughter. A major conflict is likely if he dies, so why not face it now? Of course it may be hurtful to those who do not inherit, but knowing that this is his wish, and planning t finances accordingly, will actually lessen conflict in the end. Approaching the conflict is not appealing, but it may actually lead to conversations that can bring the family closer now, and create the opportunity for better family relations in the future.