A Year Later, the Fight Over Aretha Franklin’s Estate Deepens

At Aretha Franklin’s funeral in Detroit a year ago, members of her family, dressed in crisp black and white, filled an aisle in the Greater Grace Temple as they walked together toward her coffin — a solemn image of unity after the death of their matriarch.

But that harmony seems all but lost now, as some of Franklin’s closest kin — including her four sons — jockey for control of her estate and trade barbs in court over matters as serious as each other’s competence and as minor as who gets to drive Franklin’s Mercedes-Benz.

Hanging in the balance is the value of an estate that some experts estimate could ultimately be worth hundreds of millions of dollars — if the family can manage it properly.

“In the business of estate management, everybody in a family has to be on board and move together in a supportive, cooperative manner,” said Jeff Jampol, who manages the estates of Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and the Doors, “or they will tear the fabric of the legacy asunder.”

Family squabbles over celebrity estates are not rare, as infighting over the estates of Prince, James Brown and, more recently, Tom Petty, have made clear. But Franklin’s case is especially complex because determining how she wanted her assets distributed involves deciphering whether any of the three hand-scrawled documents found in her home three months ago — one of them under the couch cushions — should be embraced as her will.

When Franklin died, at age 76, her family believed she had no will. Under Michigan law, that meant her estate would be divided equally among her sons. With that understanding, the sons approved the appointment of a cousin, Sabrina Owens, as the estate’s personal representative, or executor.

But if any will is accepted by the probate judge overseeing the estate, that formula for the distribution of assets would be upended, with far-reaching consequences for Franklin’s sons, whose earnings could change — some drastically, depending on which will is declared legitimate. Ms. Owens’s status as executor would also be in jeopardy.

“The wills changed everything,” Charlene Glover-Hogan, a lawyer for Kecalf Franklin, the singer’s youngest son, said at a contentious court hearing on Aug. 6.

Like their mother, Franklin’s sons for decades have largely kept family matters private. Three of her sons — Clarence, the oldest, along with Kecalf and Edward — were raised together in the Detroit area, and for years formed a tight-knit unit, according to Rev. James Holley, a confidante of Ms. Franklin’s who spoke at her funeral. But that connection began to break down once Clarence, who according to court papers has been diagnosed with mental illness, moved into a series of assisted living facilities. He now resides in a group home outside Detroit.

CreditJeff Kowalsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Another son, Ted White Jr., was largely raised by the family of his father, Ted White, Franklin’s former manager, to whom she was married in the 1960s, Ms. Owens said in an interview.

All four sons, now middle-aged adults, have tried to pursue music careers. Kecalf performed as a Christian rapper under the name Kecalf Cunningham, to sometimes harsh reviews. Ted White Jr. played guitar for his mother under the name Teddy Richards. Edward Franklin tried to establish himself as a gospel singer.

Clarence, who was born when Ms. Franklin was in her early teens, has written a number of songs, including some recorded by his mother. His current condition is unclear. In Ms. Franklin’s March 2014 will, the last of three she drafted, she instructed her other sons to check on Clarence’s welfare weekly and “oversee his needs.” But Mildred Gaddis, a radio fixture in Detroit who was a friend of Franklin’s, called Clarence “quite aware, without question,” and added: “There’s this perception out there that he is intellectually deficient. None of that is true.”

Clarence’s court-appointed guardian, Jon B. Munger, declined to comment on his client’s health, but he has argued that neither the 2014 will, nor two earlier drafts dated in 2010, can be authenticated, and that they contain contradictory instructions and are at points illegible. If Franklin is found to have died without a will, Clarence would receive a one-fourth share, like the other sons. But the 2014 will does not even list him as a beneficiary, except to the extent that the other sons follow their mother’s written dictate to take care of him.

Kecalf, who favors the 2014 will, has been the most aggressive in court filings. His lawyers complained this week in court papers that, though the estate has cataloged some assets, it has taken too long to present a complete inventory.

“It is totally unacceptable that it has taken a year for the heirs to begin (to) find out what their mother owned on the date of her death,” his lawyers said in a filing.

Kecalf has taken particular aim at Ms. Owens, accusing her of mismanagement and petitioning the court to take her place in running the estate. Last month, he accused Ms. Owens — a University of Michigan administrator who has been widely seen as a capable businesswoman — of “self-dealing” by taking possession of a 2016 Mercedes-Benz sedan owned by Franklin and driving it around.


CreditPaul Sancya/Associated Press

Ms. Owens, the daughter of Aretha’s sister Erma, denied any wrongdoing. In court papers, her lawyers said that Owens had transferred the title of the car to have it insured, not to own or use it, and in a pointed note, added that Kecalf had asked permission for his son to drive the vehicle.

David J. Bennett, the primary lawyer for the estate, has pulled no punches in attacking Kecalf’s petition, telling the judge, Jennifer S. Callaghan, that Kecalf lacks “the capability to be a personal representative.” Mr. Bennett has also noted that the estate has advanced Kecalf money to pay his criminal attorney for a drunk-driving arrest last year.

Edward Franklin largely sides with Kecalf about the wills, according to his lawyer, Craig A. Smith. Ted White Jr. has asked the judge to consider all three of the wills as representing Franklin’s full wishes, and asked to be named personal representative alongside Ms. Owens.

Judge Callaghan has urged the family to settle its differences through a mediator. Under Michigan law, the family could bypass questions of the validity of the wills if all heirs can come to an agreement.

But lawyers connected to the estate said that they did not expect such discussions to begin for months. Ms. Owens expressed frustration with the delays.

“When you have to deal with court and court petitions,” she said, “it all takes away from the more positive work that can be done.”

Despite their legal tussles, the broader family is striving to hold together, said Cristal Franklin, another cousin. The Franklin brothers, she said, are on a private email list the family uses to vet the parades, tributes and other Aretha-related events that frequently come up — yet all those events, and the constant media attention, she said, have not given the family “a chance to grieve as normal people.”

“When it comes down to it,” Cristal added, “as a family we’re still sticking with each other, we’re still loving on each other. This has not been easy.”

In court, though, the sons remain apart. Two of them, Edward and Kecalf, attended a recent hearing, where the judge considered whether to allow a distribution of some personal items as keepsakes to the sons but also to people like Barack Obama, who Mr. Bennett said has asked for the elaborate silver bow hat that Franklin wore to his first inauguration.

Edward and Kecalf sat separately throughout the proceeding. They did not speak to one another.

Though the Franklin estate would appear poised to take in considerable future earnings, in the short term it faces mounting financial challenges. Among them are a claim from the Internal Revenue Service for up to $ 8 million in unpaid taxes and penalties (the estate says it has paid $ 3 million of that already); a $ 160,000 civil suit over royalties for Franklin’s 1973 song “Angel”; and — filed just this month by Franklin’s sister-in-law Earline — a $ 43,000 claim for caregiving during Franklin’s final months and for the return of an “Air Force military flag.”

But the most serious financial issue is what impact the discovery of the wills may have on future business. According to Mr. Bennett, who represented Ms. Franklin for nearly 30 years, questions of who controls the estate have disrupted some of its biggest prospects, including an MGM biopic starring Jennifer Hudson and a season of “Genius,” a scripted series on the National Geographic Channel that is to be devoted to Franklin.


CreditOakland County Probate Court

“The discovery of the wills has put a halt to a lot of negotiations because it’s unclear who can make the decisions,” Mr. Bennett said in an interview. “All of this is making it harder and much slower.”

Important contractual details about the MGM film, Mr. Bennett said, remained under negotiation. He said he was with Franklin when she discussed it with the studio, “and she absolutely did not agree to anything.”

Yet the producers of both projects said they were moving ahead, and had secured all necessary rights. Michael Rosenberg, the co-chairman of Imagine Entertainment, the studio producing “Genius,” said the project was in preproduction.

A spokeswoman for MGM said the film’s producers, Scott Bernstein and Harvey Mason Jr., “worked closely with Ms. Franklin during her life,” and that “Ms. Franklin also personally blessed the casting of Jennifer Hudson to portray her.”

To some extent, the seeds of the estate’s problems were planted by Franklin herself. Intent on running her own affairs, she cycled through numerous lawyers over the years, and ignored their pleas to write a will — or at least to work with any of them in doing so.

“She was very private, very secretive,” said Dick Alen, her former agent, who added that he was not surprised she had written wills herself. “This was all very typical for her,” he said.

The wills are unorthodox, lacking standard hallmarks like witness signatures. Yet they also take specific steps to revoke previous wills and — even with cross-outs and seemingly irrelevant asides, like complaints about past lawyers — carefully list her real estate properties and royalty accounts.

One will, dated June 21, 2010, even has the handwritten mark of a notary public: Zoretha Coleman, who signed the document five months after Franklin did.

Does that enhance the validity of that version of the will?

Under Michigan law, a handwritten will may be admitted even without witnesses, as long as it is signed, dated and in the handwriting of the deceased.

In a brief telephone interview, Ms. Coleman acknowledged notarizing the will. She said that she was an assistant to Franklin for more than 20 years, and that she has continued to work with Ms. Owens and the estate. But she declined to discuss other questions, such as whether she views the notarized will as being particularly valid.

“I am not allowed to talk about the will at all,” Ms. Coleman said, “period.”

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