Aretha Franklin, the courts, and a sofa: Why you need a clear estate plan

daughter helping mother to write a will

Looking to make things as easy and stress-free as possible for your loved ones when you are gone is incredibly important. However, simply writing a will isn’t enough – you should also discuss your wishes with your loved ones to avoid the risk of disputes.

During what would inevitably be a difficult time for your friends and family, the last thing they will need is a lengthy argument, or even court case, to determine where your inheritance will end up.

With that in mind, making sure you have left clear instructions behind for your loved ones will help smooth this process. Despite the obvious benefits of doing so, a survey by Royal London revealed that around 56% of UK adults don’t have a valid will.

They aren’t alone in that regard, either. A recent court case involving the late Aretha Franklin has shown that many people aren’t aware of just how important it is to leave explicit instructions behind for loved ones. Read on to find out why it’s so important to make your wishes clear.

Aretha Franklin’s sons took their will dispute to court

Instead of having an official document drawn up by a legal professional, Ms Franklin left two handwritten notes detailing who she wanted to leave her estate to.

Franklin’s niece discovered the two separate notes, one dated 2010 and the other 2014. Each of these notes named a different son as the beneficiary of her estate.

The original note from 2010 was found in a locked cabinet at the late singer’s home, naming Ted White II as the beneficiary. However, a second note, dated 2014, was found under a cushion on the sofa, with Ted White II’s name crossed out and Kecalf Cunningham named instead.

Without an officially documented will, it was difficult for the family members to determine who was the beneficiary of the estate and so they were forced to leave it to the courts to decide.

In the July 2023 court case, the Michigan jury found in favour of son Kecalf. Even though the dispute ended up having to be resolved in the courts, at least Aretha Franklin had at least planned (albeit twice) for the future and what was to happen upon her passing.

However, her story highlights the need to make your estate plans clear to your family before you die.

Incorrect and DIY wills are leading to increased numbers of will disputes in the UK

Primarily caused by the pandemic and people keen to put their affairs in order but not being able to seek professional advice, DIY wills have become more commonplace in recent years.

However, according to figures released by Royal London, these DIY wills have led to an increase in the number of will disputes in the UK.

Estate plans can often be open to challenge if the correct language has not been used, or if important provisions have been left out of the will. Indeed, attempts to block the legal process of dealing with someone’s assets upon their death rose by 37% in 2021, compared to 2019.

Given that family arrangements can now be more complex than in the past, with divorce and remarriage now more commonplace, incorrect wills can fail to take these more complex situations into account.

For instance, children from a previous marriage and a second spouse are all likely to expect to benefit from your will, so making sure that your will is clearly defined and specifies exactly who gets what is incredibly important.

A legally documented will reduces the chance of confusion and lost assets

The biggest benefit of having a clearly defined will in place is that you can have all your assets in order and a clear specification of who receives an inheritance.

Without a clearly defined or valid will in place, your loved ones may miss out on some of your estate, including any assets that you haven’t formally identified.

Additionally, with no legal will in place, your estate would most likely be divided according to the laws of intestacy. In this situation, only a civil partner, spouse, or close relative, can typically inherit your estate.

If you are in a civil partnership or you are married, your partner will normally inherit the first £270,000 of your estate, with the remainder then being divided equally between them and any surviving children.

Conversely, if you aren’t married or in a civil partnership, your partner will not automatically inherit anything from you. As a result, your estate could go to people you had not specified and those you want to inherit your assets may get nothing.

Discussing estate plans can reduce the risk of family disputes

As Aretha Franklin’s court case has highlighted, it’s always a good idea to give clear details about how you’d like your estate to be administered and discuss everything with your close family before you are gone.

Given that losing a loved one is an incredibly traumatic time, having to spend months, or even years, in a legal battle over inheritance is a situation best avoided where possible.

So, it could be beneficial to sit down with your family and discuss:

  • The wishes outlined in your will
  • Details of any protection policies you have
  • Details of all your savings, investments, and pensions
  • How you’d like to distribute any specific items of monetary or sentimental value.

This way, you can manage the expectations of your beneficiaries, and reduce the likelihood of disputes after you have passed.

Your will could need updating when circumstances change

It’s important to note that if your financial circumstances change, your will could need updating to reflect these new priorities.

For example, any existing will would be immediately invalidated when you get married so you would need to update your legal document as a result.

Similarly, if going through a divorce, your ex-spouse would no longer automatically inherit your estate so you would need to specify who will.

Get in touch

If you are planning ahead and want to know more about looking after yourself and your loved ones in the future, speak to us. Email or call us on 01454 416653.

Please note

The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate estate planning, tax planning or will writing.

This blog is for general information only and does not constitute advice. The information is aimed at retail clients only.

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