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  • Amy Ireland

Would Aretha Franklin's Hand-Written Will be Recognized in Minnesota?

When a celebrity dies without a will, the drama over dividing the remaining estate assets always gets attention - especially when the celebrity is the Queen of Soul. Who gets the furs, the jewels, and the $18 million in assets? Everybody wants a piece of that.

Aretha Franklin's family (and lawyer!) thought she had died without a will. But then they discovered two handwritten wills. Neither was prepared by a lawyer. One was dated 2010 and locked in a cabinet in the singer's home. That will was notarized, but listed no witnesses. The second, dated 2014, was handwritten and found in a spiral notebook hidden under the cushion of a sofa where the singer was known to sleep. It was not notarized, and listed no witnesses.

On July 11, 2023, a jury in the case determined that the second will dated 2014 was valid under Michigan law as a "holographic," or handwritten will. Finally, five years after Aretha Franklin's death, the drama should finally go away and the jewels can be distributed.

What if the case had taken place in Minnesota?

Under Minnesota law, a will need not be written by a lawyer. Anyone of "sound mind" who is over 18 years old can make a will. Other than that, the will needs to be: (1) in writing (but not necessarily typed); (2) signed by the person making the will (or someone with legal authority to do so on her behalf); and (3) signed by at least two individuals after witnessing the signing of the will.

At first glance, it would seem that neither of Aretha Franklin's wills would be valid in Minnesota. BUT . . .

As a result of the COVID epidemic (which caused many people to be unable to have their wills witnessed) the Minnesota legislature created the so-called 'Harmless Error' rule. The rule basically says that a will can be valid even if it is missing one of the standard requirements. So, in Minnesota, a handwritten will that isn't signed or isn't witnessed could still be valid IF the person submitting the will to the court can prove by 'clear and convincing' evidence that the document was intended to be the individual's will, a revocation of a will, an addition or alteration to a will, or a revival of the will.

This means that technically, a jury COULD find that a will such as Aretha Franklin's 2014 will is valid in Minnesota - but it would be very difficult to prove given the 'clear and convincing' standard.

AND - the Harmless Error rule only applies to documents and writings executed after March 13, 2020, when the COVID shut-down began. Which means that in the case of Aretha Franklin, the estate would still be without a will.

SO, if you don't want your family fighting over your furs, jewels, or millions of dollars in royalties - be sure to at least write down your wishes, then get a couple of friends together to watch you sign and date it, and have them sign and date it as well.

Pro-Tip? Tell someone where to find the document so the family doesn't start fighting over your stuff during the months your will is hidden away under your couch cushions.

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