October 9, 2023
The Greatest Gift
As trust officers, we spend a significant amount of time guiding and counseling our clients about the pros and cons of various estate planning strategies that will meet their goals and objectives. Most of the time, those strategies develop and change over time as people, families, and wealth changes. One of the most rewarding things for us is to see the results of our guidance over the lifetime of a client and through multiple generations. One of the most important tasks we frequently do with our clients is to review their estate planning documents in the context of changes in tax law, fiduciary law, assets, goals and objectives, and family changes. We discuss their financial power of attorney, their health care power of attorney, their will, their trust, and any other estate planning documents that they have executed or should be considered. In that same vein, we also talk about what has remained the same. These conversations and reviews are one of the most valuable services that we provide to the families we serve in our spectrum of our continuity of client care.
Over the past five years, I have read many articles about the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the estate plan (or lack thereof) of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. I cannot help but wonder (and be a bit saddened) how someone with a reported 80-million-dollar estate could die without a complete set of estate planning documents that were drafted by a competent estate planning attorney and without the conversations described here. There are many lessons to be learned in the story that has developed since the death of Ms. Franklin. Perhaps the biggest of them is how important it is to have conversations with the right people to ensure your wishes are well documented, understood, and able to be followed.
In summary, Aretha passed away in 2018 and until recently, her family has publicly fought the battle of settlement of her estate in the probate court system. Her assets were structured in such a way that her entire estate had to go through the probate process to transfer to her heirs. The first step of that process is to validate the will. The problem with Ms. Franklin’s will was that there were two of them. One dated 2010 and the other 2014. Both were holographic (handwritten) wills with the former stored securely in her locked safe, and the latter in a notebook found haphazardly tucked under couch cushions. As you can likely guess, the wills did not distribute her estate in the same manner, and thus the court battle began among her four children to validate the will that benefited one the most.
While some states do not recognize a holographic will, Michigan does. Also, in Michigan a will must be witnessed to be valid. In Ms. Franklin’s case each of the wills varied in their execution, each valid to a certain degree, which left the courts to decide which would preside over her estate. Ultimately and recently, the court ruled that her 2014 will was valid and her probate estate would be administered and distributed according to the terms of the will that was slipped under couch cushions.
By all accounts, Ms. Franklin was a very private person, but how is it then that she could leave her estate in such disarray and in a manner that has made her life so public? Where was her trusted advisor(s) to guide and counsel her on how to best achieve her goals? Had Ms. Franklin had someone who was comfortable enough to have these conversations with her, it is likely that the settlement of her estate, which became a public spectacle, would have been avoided and she would have achieved the privacy and efficient transfer of assets that she desired.
Privacy is to be respected, but one must also acknowledge the consequences of too much privacy. Having open and honest conversations with your team at Greenleaf Trust and your estate planning attorney about family dynamics and your estate goals will allow for the best planning for you and your family. We should not overlook discussing whether or not circumstances are such that certain aspects of your estate should be shared with loved ones. These conversations will provide the foundation for giving one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself and your loved ones: The gift of clarity.