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Handwriting Analysis in Aretha Franklin’s Estate

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Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, left two conflicting Wills.

When Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, her family thought she didn’t have a Will. However, then they discovered two handwritten Wills – one in a locked cabinet and the other under a couch cushion – that gave conflicting instructions on how her estate should be handled. One of those Wills is now being examined by a handwriting expert to see if it’s the most recent valid Will. That determination will help decide who controls most of her finances and how her songs and likeness can be used in the future.

Fortune’s recent article, “How a Forensic Handwriting Expert Will Examine Aretha Franklin’s Will,” reports that in the Will thought to have been written in 2014, Franklin named her youngest son, Kecalf, as the executor of the estate. It looks like she first wanted another son, Teddy, to be in charge. However, his name is crossed out, with Kecalf written on the same line, followed by the name of Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens, whose name is also crossed out.

Now, in the middle of the dispute over the estate’s control, Kecalf has hired a forensic document specialist, Erich Speckin, to affirm to the court that the Will was, in fact, written by Franklin in 2014 and hasn’t been altered since. The other parties—Owens, who’s the current executor as decided before the discovery of the Wills; Teddy; and another son, Clarence—can also enlist their own handwriting experts, if they wish.

There are several steps an expert will take in making this determination. What Aretha Franklin left behind is known as a “holographic” Will, meaning that she wrote it entirely by herself, then signed and dated it. Holographic Wills are not valid in all states (such as Florida), but are valid in Michigan, provided that “material portions are in the testator’s handwriting.”

Because handwriting can change as a person ages and declines in health, the expert will try to compare the writing in the Will to as many contemporaneous sources as he can find. This may include Franklin’s lyrics, handwritten notes, birthday cards, or any other writing she might have done. The expert will use these to compare and look for anomalies. In most cases of fraudulent Wills, a forger will type out the text and forge a signature because writing out a full page in someone else’s handwriting is nearly impossible.

Once Speckin’s findings are revealed, the next skirmish in the estate battle will be based on his findings and the parties’ ability to come to an agreement. Kecalf now has only the support of his brother, Edward, in his bid to become the executor.

This is just one more reminder that everyone should have a valid Will at all times. Work with a qualified estate planning attorney to be sure make your Will is much clearer than the Queen of Soul’s.

Reference: Fortune (August 13, 2019) “How a Forensic Handwriting Expert Will Examine Aretha Franklin’s Will”

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