Validity of Handwritten Wills in Ohio: Insights from Aretha Franklin’s Case

November 28, 2023

During a two-day trial last summer, a Michigan jury concluded that a handwritten note penned by Aretha Franklin in 2014, found in a drawing book beneath sofa cushions in her home, holds legal validity as a will. The jury determined that this 2014 document was intentionally created to supersede a prior will signed by Ms. Franklin in 2010, which was discovered securely stored at her residence.

Aretha Franklin’s children contested a will that showed significant differences. Nonetheless, the jury’s decision marked the resolution of the family dispute.

Legal Requirements for Wills in Ohio

In Ohio under Revised Code 2107.03:

“Except or wills, every will shall be in writing, but may be handwritten or typewritten. The will shall be signed at the end by the testator or by some other person in the testator’s conscious presence and at the testator’s express direction.  The will shall be attested and subscribed in the conscious presence of the testator, by two or more competent witnesses, who saw the testator subscribe, or heard the testator acknowledge the testator’s signature.”

Because Aretha Franklin wrote the 2014 will herself in a notebook without any evidence that witnesses watched her sign it, it is very unlikely this dispute would have made it to trial in Ohio. Alternatively, the Michigan case considered the validity of “holographic” or handwritten wills, with the jury looking to the intent of Aretha Franklin when creating those 2014 notes.

Estate Planning and Privacy for Celebrities

It’s not uncommon to hear about wealthy celebrities passing away without proper estate planning documents.  Some notable mentions include Aretha Franklin, Prince, Bob Saget, Stan Lee, Tupac Shakur, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Jackson, and John Denver.  However, there remains a possibility that any one of them did, in fact, have an estate plan in place.

The Role of Trusts in Estate Planning

With proper planning and titling of assets utilizing trusts, all asset distribution is completely private.  Trusts are often utilized for asset distribution at death and also tax benefits.  Trusts offer a higher degree of posthumous asset control compared to wills due to their flexibility. For example, trust assets can protect against creditors or ex-spouses.  Trusts can also be utilized to put stipulations on distributions. Trust funds are commonly written specifically for the Trustee to make distributions to beneficiaries for the health, welfare, maintenance, support, and education of the beneficiary.  Because these are not public, there may be times where it is reported that a celebrity did not have a will, when in reality they did prepare an estate plan utilizing trusts which maintain privacy and other benefits.

Consulting with an Attorney for Estate Planning

Without a valid will, a decedent’s assets will be distributed according to state law.  Many times, the assets will not be distributed as the individual would have wanted.  Relatives may receive distributions who did not have a relationship with the decedent, for example.  An estate needs to be open in the local probate court and the court must approve an inventory, accounting and distributions.  It’s timely, expensive, and public.  Additionally, even with a valid will, the assets still need to be distributed with approval from the probate court, and all financial, beneficiary, and other related information is public record.

Consulting With an Attorney for Estate Planning

While it may not make sense for everyone to utilize trusts in their estate plan, it is important to discuss estate planning options with an attorney and not leave it to chance.

To discuss further, please contact KJK’s experienced Estate, Wealth & Succession Planning attorneys Susan Friedman (SLF@kjk.com), located in our Cleveland office or Greg Williams (GLW@kjk.com), located in our Columbus office.