Aretha Franklin’s succession: how a well-written will could help prevent an inheritance dispute


Older man signing paperwork

In 2018, the world mourned the loss of the legendary soul and R&B singer, Aretha Franklin. As well as leaving a void in the world of music, the seminal singer’s passing also resulted in a bitter dispute within her family.

The conflict arose when her loved ones discovered two notes written by the late singer that revealed different succession plans, after which her family clashed over the dividing of her estate. 

The controversy highlights the importance of a well-written will that accurately outlines your wishes for your assets after you pass away. Without one, your family may not understand how you want your estate to be divided, and this can lead to inter-family disputes.

Indeed, data from IBB Law shows that 75% of people are likely to experience a will or inheritance dispute case at some point in their life.

Continue reading to discover the importance of a watertight will, and why it’s essential to make your wishes clear before you pass away so you can avoid making the same mistake as the “Queen of Soul”. 

Aretha Franklin’s family entered an inheritance dispute due to confusion about wills

In 2019, Aretha Franklin’s niece found two notes written by the late singer, both outlining separate wishes regarding her estate. 

One note, which was dated 2010 and personally signed by Franklin, was found in a locker cabinet in her home. It named one of her sons, Ted White II, as the executor of her will. 

However, a second note, dated 2014, was discovered under a couch cushion and appointed her other son, Kecalf Cunningham, as her executor, with Ted White II’s name crossed out. 

According to the latter document, Kecalf would inherit Franklin’s main home, which was valued at $1.1 million when she died.

This confusion arising from the influential singer’s wishes resulted in a contentious dispute within her family, causing a rift as both parties contested the validity of either note. Eventually, courts ruled that the 2014 note was her valid will.  

All this discord was caused because Aretha Franklin didn’t accurately outline her wishes to her loved ones, highlighting the importance of a valid, well-written will. 

An increase in “DIY wills” has resulted in more inheritance disputes

Royal London reports there was a 37% increase in succession disputes in 2021 compared to 2019. What’s more, there were nearly 10,000 challenges to inheritance claims in English and Welsh courts and tribunal service centres in 2021.

A primary reason for this rise in disputes in the last few years has been attributed to an increasing number of “DIY wills” created during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is when an individual creates a will without seeking professional help, much like the Aretha Franklin case.

During the pandemic, more people focused on setting their financial affairs in order in case something were to happen to them if they were diagnosed with the virus, increasing the prevalence of DIY wills. 

Even though you could save money in the short term by creating a DIY will, the downsides of doing so could outweigh the positives.

For instance, if you don’t clearly outline your wishes and it results in a dispute, this could cost your family more in legal costs. A professionally written will could end up cheaper overall.

Also, since your family won’t be able to access your assets until the courts resolve the dispute, they won’t be able to make the most of your wealth for some time after you pass away. 

Moreover, these disputes can often have lasting adverse effects on your family. Since you’ve just passed away, the grief and stress they’re likely experiencing, coupled with an argument over your estate, could result in a perfect storm of issues and amplify negative emotions. 

3 ways to avoid any potential disputes

You can ensure your will is watertight in several ways, potentially preventing any disputes or schisms within your family – read on to discover how. 

1. Keep your will up to date

Ideally, you should view your will as a “live” document and ensure that it remains as up to date as possible. This is especially true after significant life events, such as marriage, divorce, or welcoming new children or grandchildren into the family.

Additionally, it may be worth updating your will to include a partner that you’re cohabiting with. This is because if you’re not married or in a civil partnership, your partner typically won’t have the automatic rights to inherit your property and assets.

By failing to update your will and leaving someone out, a dispute could arise after you pass away when your next of kin come to divide your estate. 

2. Ensure the will is valid

Your will is considered valid when it’s drawn up with the correct legal procedure and witnessed by others. It may also be worth making sure that there can be no claims that others influenced your decisions, or that you weren’t sound of mind when you wrote it. 

You can add value to your will by working with a legal professional, and you may want to attend any meetings alone so no one can accuse the person joining you of influencing your decisions.

It may also be wise to obtain a capacity report from your GP to prevent others from stating you weren’t of sound mind when you completed your will, especially if you’re over 70 or have experienced mental health issues in the past.

3. Speak to your family

You may also help prevent an inheritance dispute by discussing your succession plans and wishes with your loved ones. 

It’s important to keep your family in the loop and explain the rationale behind your decisions. If they understand why you’re dividing your assets in a certain way, they may be more likely to accept the outcome.

And, when they fully understand your wishes, there likely won’t be any surprises when you pass away and your next of kin can manage their expectations accordingly.

Get in touch

If you would like any further help regarding your long-term financial plans, then we can help. 

Please contact us via email at or call 0115 933 8433 to find out more.

Please note

The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate estate planning or will writing.

This blog is for general information only and does not constitute advice. The information is aimed at retail clients only.