Learn from Aretha’s estate mess and ‘Think’

I recently saw a movie in an actual movie theater!

It was called “Respect” and it followed about 20 years of the life of Aretha Franklin, the so-called Queen of Soul and the number one singer of all time in a Rolling Stone ranking from 2010.

My niece and nephew now own my old vinyl records. They tell me they appreciate the “old” music that I once thought young and hip (even hippy-ish). But I never owned an Aretha record.

I did know Aretha. I saw the movie “The Blues Brothers” with SNL regulars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as Jake and Elwood Blues.

It was a pretty standard film, with two brothers setting out on a mission from God to re-form a band to raise money to save the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised. I know, we’ve all seen that plot a hundred times.

What was unusual was the number of famous singers and musicians who appeared in the film. Whether you knew her or not before walking into the theater, you could not forget Aretha’s performance of “Think.”

Aretha’s character ran a soul food diner. Jake and Elwood came in to try to convince her short order cook husband to join their holy mission. Aretha warned him to think before he did such a thing, with a performance that made a whole new generation say, “Whoa, who is that?”

There is a word, “holistic,” that was not well known when that movie came out. It is used in many contexts now. Even tax advisors need to think holistically. We are warned to not think about just the tax consequences of actions.

Estate planning is perhaps the area of tax practice where one must consider the whole. In the Blues Brothers era, estate planners thought the trick was to save estate taxes when someone died. About 8% of all decedents were subject to estate tax in those days.

Thinking holistically means don’t be a one-trick pony. Now that well below 1% of the population is subject to estate tax, estate planners are more likely to consider the whole of the client’s needs. Taxes may be a small part of that whole.

Well, back to Aretha. She died in 2018. She had four sons from either three or four fathers. Their ages spanned 15 years. The oldest, born when Aretha was 12, has special needs and lives in a group home.

When Aretha died, it was thought that she had no will. The sons – in birth order, Clarence, Edward, Ted and Kecalf – agreed to a friendly and equal split of the estate. Michigan law supported this. They designated a cousin, Sabrina, as the executor.

All was fine until Sabrina started finding wills. Yes, plural. Two from 2010 and one from 2014. All in Aretha’s handwriting, the last one in a spiral notebook found under cushions of a sofa.

Sabrina must have thought, “I ain’t no psychiatrist, I ain’t no doctor with a degree, it don’t take too much IQ to see what you’re doing to me.”

Aretha made her think.

Michigan law allows for an entirely handwritten will. It even allows a will to be unsigned if it clearly shows the decedent’s wishes.

The 2014 will first named the three younger sons as co-executors. Then Aretha crossed out all names but Kecalf. Ted and an attorney appointed to represent Clarence challenged Kecalf’s competence to serve as Aretha’s executor.

Then a fourth will was found. That one was actually typed and established a trust for Clarence. Aretha initialed some pages. But it was not signed by Aretha. Sabrina gave up and resigned as executor.

This whole thing moved from a friendly division of assets to a hot mess. The sons were now “playing games that they can score,” and wondering if Aretha stopped to think what she was trying to do to them.

The Probate Court judge appointed Aretha’s friend Reginald Turner, who just last month took over as President of the American Bar Association, as temporary estate representative. The sons’ battles continue.

Aretha’s estate has tax issues. It also has bigger non-tax problems. Folks, when it comes to planning for your demise, you need to THINK!

Jim Hamill is the director of Tax Practice at Reynolds, Hix & Co. in Albuquerque. He can be reached at jimhamill@rhcocpa.com.


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