Aretha Franklin is a household name around the world. Until now she was known for her stellar 50-year career as a soul singer and for her activism. But since her death in 2018 she has been in the news more as the latest in an increasingly long line of celebrities with complex estates because of their Wills (or lack of Wills).
Why Is Aretha Franklin’s Estate in the News?
Put very simply, because her family found a page of lined paper buried in a notebook of other writings and doodles, in between her sofa cushions after her death. This document set out her wishes for her estate after her death, and was written in 2014.
There was no question that it was written by Aretha, and no question of her having the mental capacity to write it. Despite this however, a legal dispute followed to determine whether or not it was a valid Will because of how it was written and where it was found. It has now been decided by the Court that it is a valid Will, and that it cancels one made four years earlier in 2010.
The newer Will distributes Aretha’s property differently between her sons than the 2010 Will did, and so it was important to all of them for the issue to be resolved formally by a Court, so that each person’s inheritance was clear. The newer Will also changed who could be her Executor.
For more details about the decision, have a look at this BBC News story.
So What Is a Will?
A Will is a document, which must meet certain criteria to be valid. The criteria differ from country-to-country and so what has now been confirmed to be a Will in the USA may not have been found to be a Will here in England and Wales (the rules differ in Northern Ireland and Scotland).
To be a valid Will in England and Wales, a document must:
- Be in writing, signed by the Testator*, or by some other person in his/her presence and at his/her direction; and
- Appear that the Testator intended to make the Will legally binding by signing it; and
- Have two witnesses to the Testator’s signature, who must see the Testator sign; and
- The witnesses must then also sign.
As long as the document meets these requirements, then it will be treated as a valid Will here in England and Wales – even if it is handwritten and hidden in a notebook like Aretha’s 2014 Will was!
What is a Testator?
A testator is the person who has made a will. If a person dies without a will they are deemed to have died 'intestate', i.e. without a will.
Should a Will Be Dated?
Strangely, in England and Wales a Will does not need to be dated but ensuring each Will you make is dated makes it easier for your Executors* to work out which Will is most recent and therefore the one they should be using to deal with your estate.
If Aretha’s Wills had not been clearly dated, then the Court would have had an even harder job to decide which was written first. They would have to get evidence from witnesses and from other records (if there were any) to find out when each document was written and therefore which was most recent.
What is an Executor?
An executor is the person (or persons, known as executors) who are entitled to act in the administration of your estate.
Can I Write My Own Will?
The short answer is “yes”. You can write your own Will, using any form of wording and any written format that you wish. You can also buy pre-printed Will forms and complete them.
But beware! It is a fact in relation to Wills that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ and it is very easy for someone without sufficient legal knowledge of Wills and the law around them to miss something out, or word something in a way that means the actual effect of the Will is not what they intended. Also, pre-printed Will forms use a “one size fits all” approach which is not the case. Your circumstances and wishes are not the same as anyone else’s, so why should your Will be?
Check out our blog on the dangers of a DIY Will here.
Want to know more?
For advice specific to your circumstances, please contact one of our specialist solicitors. Whether you wish to contest a Will, make a Will, or indeed query the validily of a Will, our team can help.
☎️ Call our Wakefield office on 01924 290 029
☎️ Call our Garforth office on 0113 246 4423
☎️ Call our Sherburn in Elmet office on 01977 350 500
☎️ Call our Mapplewell office on 01226 339 009
☎️ Call our Ossett office on 01924 586 466
About Melanie Pickering
Mel joined Thornton Jones Solicitors in November 2021 having worked in Law since 2004 occupying various positions from junior posts through to becoming a fully qualified solicitor.
In 2009 Mel completed her studies at law school and subsequently completed her training contract and in October 2017 qualified as a solicitor specialising in Private Client, Contentious Probate and Missing Persons Law. Mel admits that she “loves Law because it’s always changing and there’s always something new to learn”.
Outside of work, Mel lives with her husband and cat. She is a keen supporter of Cancer Research UK ‘Race for Life’ having taken part every year since 2010 and raising much needed funds in the process.
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