A 2014 document handwritten by Aretha Franklin and found under a couch cushion after her death is a valid will, a jury decided Tuesday afternoon.
The decision by the six-person jury capped a two-day trial in Oakland County Probate Court as Franklin’s five-year estate saga nears an end. The jury deliberated for less than an hour.
Kecalf Franklin, on hand with three of his children — the Queen of Soul’s grandchildren — was jubilant after the verdict. He stands to benefit in a big way from the development, including taking sole ownership of her multimillion-dollar Bloomfield Hills home.
“I think that she would be very happy, and she’s proud right now that her wishes have been approved,” he said outside the courtroom.
But there’s still one last step. Judge Jennifer Callaghan now has two wills at hand: the four-page 2014 document, validated Tuesday by the jury, and an earlier, 11-page 2010 document, already agreed by Franklin’s sons to be a valid will. The judge will decide if the 2014 document revokes 2010 entirely or just in part.
Those two handwritten documents have divided the sons, sometimes bitterly.
More:Lawyers spar, sons testify, as Aretha Franklin estate trial gets underway in Pontiac
Kecalf Franklin and Edward Franklin are proponents of the 2014 will. Son Ted White is against it, hoping for an even split of the assets.
Jurors heard closing arguments from attorneys Tuesday following Monday testimony that focused in part on the Queen of Soul’s signature – “A. Franklin” with a smiley face – toward the bottom of the 2014 papers.
White’s attorney did not dispute the signature’s authenticity, but rather its placement on the page, saying it was merely a reference to some notes in the text.
Attorneys for the other sons argued otherwise.
“That argument doesn’t hold water,” said Charlie McKelvie, attorney for Kecalf Franklin. “You don’t sign off on provisions, you sign off on the document.”
McKelvie and Craig Smith, an attorney for Edward Franklin, also pointed to the 2014 document’s opening line, in which Aretha Franklin wrote in part: “Being of sound mind, I write my will & testimony.”
“She’s speaking from the grave, folks: ‘This is my will,’” Smith told the jury.
Smith and Kurt Olson, attorney for White, clashed over the notion that White sought to “disinherit his brothers” by disputing the 2014 document.
Smith called the Bloomfield Hills house the “crown jewel” of Franklin’s properties, and argued she opted in 2014 to give it solely to Kecalf because of his kids — the singer’s grandchildren.
“Sitting right there is the reason,” said Smith, pointing to Jordan, 28, Victorie, 24, and Grace, 17, in the gallery’s front row.
Franklin’s other key asset, her music royalties, was the “900-pound gorilla,” he told the jury. The 2014 document calls for that money to be split evenly among Ted, Edward and Kecalf.
“They’ll be playing ‘Respect’ 300 years from now,” Smith said.
Franklin’s oldest son, Clarence, who has a long-term disability and is in an assisted-living home, was not a party in the trial. The other sons had already reached an agreement to support him.
Judge Callaghan told the jury Tuesday its mission was twofold: deciding whether Franklin had signed the document and that she intended it to be a will. The sons had already agreed that the document was handwritten and dated by Franklin, the other conditions needed for it qualify as a valid will under Michigan law.
The jury clearly agreed it met the requirements, returning to the courtroom to announce its decision just after 3 p.m.
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.