Aretha Franklin’s handwritten note found under couch cushion is a valid will, jury rules

After less than an hour of deliberation, the jury ruled that the handwritten note found at Aretha Franklin’s home can serve as a will

Ariana Baio
Tuesday 11 July 2023 21:57 BST
Aretha Franklin’s last performance

A document written by Aretha Franklin, found under a couch cushion in her home, is valid to serve as her will, a jury in Michigan decided.

The verdict comes after a more than four-year-long battle within Ms Franklin’s family to determine what the late musician wanted for her estate.

Ms Franklin died in 2018 at the age of 76, seemingly without a will to divide her assets. Her four children, Kecalf Cunningham, Edward, and Clarence Franklin and  Ted White Jr assumed it would be divided equally.

That is until two handwritten documents were found at Ms Franklin’s home in a suburb of Detroit – one document, created in 2010, was locked in a cabinet, and the other, a four-page handwritten note created in 2014, stuffed under a couch cushion.

The jury ruled on Tuesday that the 2014 four-page document found under the couch cushion should serve as her will, after less than an hour of deliberation.

The handwritten note was discovered in a spiral notebook in May 2019, less than a year after Ms Franklin’s death.

In it, Ms Franklin divided shares of her music royalties between three of her sons, Mr Cunningham, Edward Franklin and Mr White Jr, and gave Mr Cunningham more of her personal property like her primary home and cars.

Edward Franklin, a son of music superstar Aretha Franklin (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Clarence Franklin, the eldest of the four children, has an unspecified disability and lives under legal guardianship. He did not take part in the litigation and his brothers have agreed to support him.

Although the document was not prepared by a lawyer nor does it list witnesses, it does contain what is perceived to be a signature – a smiley face next to the word “Franklin”.

Edward Franklin and Mr Cunningham favoured the 2014 handwritten pages over the 2010 document found.

A smiley face written with Aretha Franklin's signature in 2014 is seen during the first day of a jury trial over Franklin's wills at Oakland County Probate Court in Pontiac, Mich (Sarahbeth Maney/Detroit Free Press via AP)

The jury rejected the 2010 handwritten will which was signed and notarised.

In it, Ms Franklin divided her copyrights evenly but required Mr Cunningham and Edward Franklin to take business classes in order to collect a weekly and monthly allowance from her estate.

Mr White advocated for the 2010 will, believing it to be more detailed with Ms Franklin’s signature on each page.

Ted White II, a son of music superstar Aretha Franklin (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

During closing arguments, lawyers for Mr Cunningham and Edward Franklin said that the location of the 2014 handwritten notes did not make them any less significant.

“I’m very, very happy. I just wanted my mother’s wishes to be adhered to,” Mr Cunningham told The Associated Press. “We just want to exhale right now. It’s been a long five years for my family, my children.”

Kecalf Cunningham, a son of music superstar Aretha Franklin, arrives for a hearing, (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

After Ms Franklin’s death, the Respect singer left nearly $4.1m in personal property and real estate, $1m in uncashed checks, over $40k in furs and $73k in jewellery and other investments.

In 2021, Ms Franklin’s estate reached a deal with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regarding the $8m she owed in federal income taxes. The estate agreed to set aside 40 per cent of new revenue from music royalties and future projects like the Hollywood biopic “Respect” to pay it off.

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