Breaking News Emails
Get interrupted news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered everyday morning.
By Daniel Arkin
The three wills were found hidden in Aretha Franklin's suburbs Detroit home this month may not be easy to decipher. The combined 16 pages are handwritten, filled with scratches, notes in the margins, and occasional excavations.
In some states, documents cannot even qualify as wills because they were apparently not notarized or signed without witnesses present, according to legal experts. But the Queen of Souls died in Michigan, and experts said courts are far more likely to take the documents seriously.
That's because Michigan – like about half of the states – allows a "holographic" or handwritten will if it is dated and signed and as long as the "material parts are in the testator's handwriting" according to the text of the law.
The files are actually dated – one from March 2014, two from 2010 – and each page appears to be signed, according to Leigh-Alexandra Basha, a real estate and tax planning lawyer at McDermott Will & Emery in Washington, who reviewed the scanned copies submitted online.
It's less clear if the pages are in Franklin's handwriting, legal experts said. The problem or Franklin's family could seek a handwriting expert or a forensic document examiner to study the much-scraped man's pen, Basha said.
Jeffrey H. Luber, a veteran forensic document examiner in the New York area, said that the examiner would probably need a simultaneous writing test to see if certain characteristics – the height of the letters, the style of the pencil – are a fight.
But this analysis can be challenging if there is reason to believe that Franklin's penmanship was affected by illness or other weakening at that time, Luber said.
And forensic handwriting analysis, for what it is worth, has its skeptics and doubts. "It's an attempt to be scientific, but it's not an exact science," said William D. Zabel, a New York lawyer who specializes in property planning, wills, and trust.
James R. Hines Jr., a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, said verifying the pages could become more complex if the probate court had any reason to believe they were not intended to be in the first place.
"The court must decide whether the testator would have it to be their last will and will and not another kind of document," Hines said. "For example, let's take the 2014 document. Does she intend to be her will, or were it notes for a future will or diary to keep her ideas in order?"
Hines said that any trial court would study the contents of the documents and consider the circumstances in which they were written.
And while courts tend to give greater consideration to documents that were formally designed and kept more formally, "one of those documents was under a sofa pillow does not disqualify it," Hines says.
"It's also okay to have a will that uses bad grammar or contains cross-outs," Hines added.
Franklin was 76 when she died in August in pancreatic cancer. At that time, lawyers and family members said she had no will.
David Bennett, who was Franklin's lawyer for more than 40 years, filed a will that found this month in probate court in Oakland County, Michigan, Monday. He told a judge that he was not sure whether they were legal under state law.
Bennett said the testament had been shared with Franklin's four sons or their lawyers, but no agreement was reached on whether anyone should be considered valid. In a statement, the farm said two sons protested against the wills.
A hearing is scheduled for June 12.
Franklin is not the first entertainment industry's luminary, whose will was the subject of unresolved issues. For example, James Brown's property has been convicted in probate, family and copyright issues since his death in 2006.
And several music legends died without intent, including Prince, Amy Winehouse, Bob Marley, and Jimi Hendrix according to a list compiled by USA Today.