Legendary singer Aretha Franklin died on Aug. 16 after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. As per the court documents, she died without leaving behind a will or trust, Detroit Free Press reports. Her four sons have listed themselves as interested parties in her estate, and her niece Sabrina Owens has requested the court to appoint her as personal representative of the estate. One of the submitted documents confirms the absence of a will.
Though Franklin was not an owner of a vast business empire, her holdings are of significant value. Her ownership of compositions that include hit songs like “Think” and “Rock Steady” will continue to generate substantial income even after her death. Putting a monetary value on her catalog – which includes copyright matters, song publishing and record deals – will be a tough task, and the absence of a will could complicate matters further. It could result in a long, legal battle over rights to her assets by creditors or extended family members desirous of a slice of her holdings. (For more, see What Is a Will and Why Do I Need One?)
Franklin is not alone among the list of celebrities who died without a will. Here’s a look at few more cases.
World renowned pop icon Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 was accompanied by his family heading to court in the absence of a will. His mother Katherine Jackson filed a petition to seek charge of her son’s estate. A will – signed by Jackson seven years before his death – was eventually discovered, following which Katherine withdrew her petition. The old will named Katherine as the beneficiary of a trust set up by Michael and additionally appointed her a permanent guardian to his three children. Michael’s attorney John Branca and music executive John McClain were named as the administrators of his estate. However, another tax-related issue linked to inconsistency in the valuation of the late singer's name and likeness continues to hold the final resolution.
Legendary singer Prince died at age 57 in April 2016. The court filings assess his estate to be worth at least $200 million, thanks to his musical legacy and unreleased recordings. Absence of a will has produced many claimants, including individuals purporting to be his earlier unknown wife, sibling, child and distant relative. A Minnesota probate judge declared Prince’s six siblings as the heirs to his holdings in 2017. However, following appeals filed by some would-be heirs, the distribution of assets has been stalled.
The popular singer-musician lost his life in 1970, and the feud over control of his estate went on for more than 30 years among his siblings. Jimi’s father AI Hendrix died in 2002 and left Jimi's sister Janie in charge of the musician's $80-million estate. The Washington State Supreme Court retained Janie’s right over the estate, but the battle continues among the warring siblings over use of singer's image. A settlement was finally worked out before a scheduled July 2015 jury trial.
The Jamaican singer-songwriter who went on to become an international musical and cultural icon died of cancer in 1981 without leaving a will. His holdings were to be distributed among his wife and 11 children as per local laws. However, their entitlement to his name and likeness could be established only after years of court battle. Marley's half-brother was sued by the estate for organizing tours and music festivals in his name, though the matter was later settled out of court.
Kurt Cobain died in 1994 and left behind a fortune recently estimated to be worth more than $450 million. Rosemary Carroll, his entertainment lawyer, has stated that Kurt Cobain's will was incomplete and Kurt had wished his wife Courtney Love taken out of it. This argument led to many legal battles between Love and Cobain's Nirvana band partners, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. In 2010, Courtney Love relinquished the rights to Cobain's name and likeness for a loan, and the couple's daughter, Frances Bean, who then turned 18, gained charge of the trust fund, which was around a third of the estate.
The accidental death of the entertainer-turned-congressman in 1998 forced his wife, Mary Bono, to go through probate court to get access her husband's estate. Absence of a will also saw a love child appearing, though the claim was later withdrawn. Finally, Bono’s estate was distributed between Mary Bono and his two children, Chaz Bono and Christy Bono Fasce.
Though the famed American musician James Brown died in 2006 with a will, apparently it wasn't clear enough and led to six lawsuits. The claims on his estate were still being challenged in the court even after a decade. The main point of contention centers on Brown’s marital status at the time of his death, and whether Tomi Rae Hynie was his legal spouse. All of Brown’s children are united and they want to overturn the ruling, which states that Tomi Rae Hynie was the spouse.
The Bottom Line
A will sets the necessary clarity for the legal descendants to rightly inherit the holdings of the deceased. Owing to their big circle of acquaintances and public life, celebrities who die without a will set up the possibility that long lists of claimants will line up to try for a slice of whatever fortune they leave behind. The follow-up legal courtroom battles are not only costly, but also time consuming – as the cases above demonstrate. (See also, What to Do when You're Left Out of a Will.)