By Ed White
A document handwritten by singer Aretha Franklin and found in her couch after her 2018 death is a valid Michigan will, a jury said Tuesday, a critical turn in a dispute that has turned her sons against each other.
It’s a victory for Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin whose lawyers had argued that papers dated 2014 should override a 2010 will that was discovered around the same time in a locked cabinet at the Queen of Soul’s home in suburban Detroit.
The jury deliberated less than an hour after a brief trial that started Monday. After the verdict was read, Aretha Franklin's grandchildren stepped forward from the first row to hug Kecalf and Edward.
“I'm very, very happy. I just wanted my mother's wishes to be adhered to,” Kecalf Franklin said. “We just want to exhale right now. It's been a long five years for my family, my children.”
Aretha Franklin was a global star for decades, known especially for hits like “Think,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Respect.” She did not leave behind a formal, typewritten will when she died five years ago at age 76.
But documents, with scribbles and hard-to-decipher passages, emerged in 2019 when a niece scoured the home for records.
In closing arguments, lawyers for Kecalf and Edward Franklin said the fact that the 2014 papers were found in a notebook in couch cushions did not make them less significant.
"You can take your will and leave it on the kitchen counter. It’s still your will,” Charles McKelvie told the jury.
Another lawyer, Craig Smith, pointed to the first line of the document, which was displayed on four large posters in front of the jury.
“Says right here: ‘This is my will.’ She’s speaking from the grave, folks,” Smith said of Franklin.
Kecalf and Edward had teamed up against brother Ted White II, who favored the 2010 will. White’s attorney, Kurt Olson, noted the earlier will was under lock and key. He said it was much more important than papers found in a couch.
“We were here to see what the jury would rule. We'll live with it,” Olson said after the verdict.
The jury found that the 2014 version was signed by Aretha Franklin, who put a smiley face in the letter ‘A.'
There still will be discussions over whether some provisions of the 2010 will should be fulfilled and whether Kecalf Franklin could become executor of the estate. Judge Jennifer Callaghan told all sides to file briefs and attend a status conference next week.
Franklin’s estate managers have been paying bills, settling millions in tax debts and generating income through music royalties and other intellectual property. The will dispute, however, has been unfinished business.
There are differences between the 2010 and 2014 versions, though they both appear to indicate that Franklin’s four sons would share income from music and copyrights.
But under the 2014 will, Kecalf Franklin and grandchildren would get his mother’s main home in Bloomfield Hills, which was valued at $1.1 million when she died but is worth much more today.
The older will said Kecalf, 53, and Edward Franklin, 64, “must take business classes and get a certificate or a degree” to benefit from the estate. That provision is not in the 2014 version.
White, who played guitar with Aretha Franklin, testified against the 2014 will, saying his mother typically would get important documents done “conventionally and legally” and with assistance from an attorney. He did not immediately comment after the verdict.
The sharpest remarks of the trial came from Smith, who represented Edward Franklin. He told the jury White “wants to disinherit his two brothers. Teddy wants it all.”
Kecalf Franklin sat near White during the trial but they did not appear to speak to each other.
“I love my brother with all my heart,” Kecalf said outside court when asked if there was a rift.
Aretha Franklin's other son, Clarence Franklin, lives under guardianship in an assisted living center and did not participate in the trial.