While a handwritten will found in the couch of Aretha Franklin was deemed valid by a jury, that doesn't mean your own scribblings will fare as well.
Franklin's will, which was found in 2019 following the Queen of Soul's 2018 death, contained scribbles and hard-to-decipher passages. Still, the jury decided Tuesday that the papers dated 2014 should be the valid will rather than another will from 2010 that was discovered around the same time in a locked cabinet at Franklin's home in suburban Detroit, according to the Associated Press. The 2010 will, while also handwritten, was notarized.
“This is a big deal and might make some people rethink having a more formal estate plan,” said Matthew Bowden, a certified financial planner with RFC Financial Planners in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“If they value making things easy and less stressful for their loved ones then I believe it still makes great sense to have a conversation with an estate planning attorney to dot i's and cross t's to avoid some of the costly and lengthy mistakes that the Queen made,” Bowden said.
Many states don't allow handwritten wills, said Nicholas Bunio, a certified financial planner with Retirement Wealth Advisors. Any handwritten wills should still be notarized and witnessed, he said.
“The average person still should have a professional will done,” Bunio said, who urged such documents to be kept in a safe place. Powers of attorney documents for medical and financial issues should also be done, he said.
“In an emergency, you don't want to have to petition the courts to figure out what's valid and isn't. That wastes time and money. Plus, if something in a handwritten or poorly done will is missing, you're out of luck,” Bunio said.
While poorly planned estates of the rich and famous capture our attention, it's not uncommon for people to have confusing, outdated, or even no estate plan at all.
Edward Silversmith Jr., an associate portfolio manager with the Wealth Enhancement Group, said Franklin's will dispute is a great lesson for clients.
“Advisers should be proactively talking about this with clients as a great example of why planning needs to be done in advance. This shouldn't make people more lax about wills, it should be a wake-up call if they haven't gone through a formal process ending with a legally documented estate plan,” Silversmith said.
Patrick Simasko, an elder law attorney and professor at Michigan State School of Law, said no parent wants to see their kids fighting over their money and belongings, such as Franklin's kids did.
“Every family says it's not about the money, it's about the principal. But it's always about the money. They would rather the lawyer get the money than their siblings – all these years of animosity are dumped on the table,” Simasko said.
“The real world lesson that can be learned from the fact that Aretha Franklin's handwritten will was declared valid is that just about anything is better than nothing, but that doesn't make leaving a handwritten will even a remotely good idea. It just makes it better than the really bad idea of leaving no will at all,” said David Mendels, a financial adviser at Creative Financial Concepts.
Mendels said courts will generally try to do what they think you wanted – If they can figure out what that was.
“Not everyone needs a sophisticated or expensive will, but remember that when the time comes you won't be around to explain, to clarify, or correct any misinterpretations, let alone to say ‘Whoops! I didn't mean for that to happen,'” Mendels said.
In end, a will about the people you leave behind, Mendels said.
“I believe that one of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones at the end of your life is clarity about your end of life wishes and legacy. Ambiguity and conflict over an inheritance can tear an otherwise loving and functional family apart,” said Nicole Gopoian Wirick, a lawyer and certified financial planner with Prosperity Wealth Strategies.