When Aretha Franklin died in August of 2018, her family thought she didn’t leave a will. The legal term for this is dying “intestate,” and the law has a built-in set of rules to determine who gets that person’s property. Under Michigan’s intestacy laws, Aretha’s four sons would equally share her $80 million estate—so a lot is at stake.
The court appointed one of Aretha’s nieces to serve as the estate’s personal representative. She began to do her job—identifying Aretha’s property, paying her debts and taxes, and protecting what she’d left behind.
About a year later, though, the niece discovered the keys to a locked cabinet, opened it, and found two handwritten wills—one dated June 21, 2010 and another dated October 20, 2010. Then, in a spiral notebook left under a couch cushion, she found a third handwritten will dated March 31, 2014. (The Detroit Free Press website offers links that let you view the documents themselves.)
Since then, only trouble has ensued. Two of Aretha’s sons argue that the court should accept the 2014 will, which names one of them as executor. Another son is arguing that all three wills should be recognized. And the fourth is asking the court to admit none of them at all. The judge has asked the family to find a mediator to attempt some resolution of their dispute. And the estate has hired a handwriting expert to determine whether or not Franklin actually wrote the wills.
Handwritten Wills: Are They Legal?
The drama of Aretha’s story is compelling, but the details don’t matter as much as the fact that leaving multiple handwritten wills around your home is a bad estate planning strategy.
Handwritten wills signed without other people to witness your signature are technically called “holographic wills.” They can be valid, but it depends where you live. The states that currently allow them are:
Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming
States differ on what a holographic will must include to be valid. At a minimum you need to be able to prove that the person intended it be a will, that it was their handwriting, and that the person had enough mental capacity to draft it.
As the story of Aretha Franklin’s wills illustrates, handwritten wills can create a load of legal and practical headaches. It’s always best to make a formal will—whether or not you use a lawyer or do it yourself—and sign it in front of two adult witnesses who don’t stand to inherit anything from you. Those basics will meet the law of every state.
To get more answers to common questions about inheritance law and intestacy, see Legal Consumer’s inheritance law learning center.