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Why Special Needs Planning Matters: The Unfortunate Example of Aretha Franklin

Businessman holding a card with SPECIAL NEEDS PLAN message

Legendary singer and Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin passed away in August 2018 at the age of 76.  Shortly thereafter, CNN reported that Aretha Franklin had executed no will or trust to account for the distribution of her $80+ million estate.  She is survived by four sons, one of whom has special needs.  The lack of a valid will has left her family fighting over her estate in probate court, creating uncertainty as to the distribution of her significant wealth, causing significant additional cost and emotional turmoil, and leaving her special needs son without specific protections.  The singer’s situation serves as an unfortunate reminder of the need for an effective estate and special needs plan.

Lack of a clear will sends Franklin family to probate court

When you pass away with a properly-executed will in place, your assets will be distributed according to your wishes.  A will can, for example, place significant assets into a special needs trust to protect a vulnerable child or other family member.  Even before you pass away, you can create a special needs trust to support a disabled family member without affecting their ability to qualify for needs-based governmental benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid.

When you pass away without a will, as did Aretha Franklin in Michigan, state law dictates how your assets are distributed.  This is known as dying “intestate.”  Under Michigan law, an unmarried decedent’s estate is divided among the children.  If she had passed away in Florida, likewise, her estate would have been distributed in equal shares among her children–with no additional protection for her special needs son.  Nor are there any protections for her other children from divorcing spouses, substance abuse, creditor issues, etc.  A properly executed will or trust could have alleviated many of these issues. 

Moreover, in the absence of a will, the division of her assets will be a long, public, and drawn-out process.  Her children will be arguing in court over which assets go to which brother, even in light of the general rule that the assets short be apportioned relatively equally.  And Ms. Franklin missed out on the chance to ensure that a portion of her estate would go into a special needs trust or perhaps give a larger share of her estate to her son with the most need.  The intestate process also exposes the estate to more estate taxes, which could be avoided with proper planning.

Several handwritten documents were later found, causing additional probate fights

Sadly, the lack of a clear will and estate plan has led to even more conflict.  Months after her passing, a series of handwritten documents were found in a locked cabinet under the sofa cushions of Franklin’s Detroit home.  The hand-scrawled documents significantly alter the estate, replace the executor, and modify the inheritance each son will receive.  The documents were submitted to a probate judge, but, predictably, Franklin’s relatives are now arguing in court over the validity of these documents.

An effective estate plan accounting for special needs children and other relatives could have alleviated much of this conflict.  If the will had been clear and properly executed, prepared by a proper estate and special needs planning attorney, there would be far fewer grounds for Franklin’s surviving family to fight over.  The asset distribution would be laid out clearly in strong, clear, legal documents, eschewing the need for a bitter and unpleasant fight in the courts. 

A special needs planning attorney can help protect your family, creating an estate and special needs plan tailored to your needs and circumstances.  We can help determine if a special needs trust is the right call and effectuate a will that distributes assets in accordance with your wishes and in such a way as to protect any special needs family members. Contact the knowledgeable, dedicated, and compassionate West Palm Beach trust and estates attorneys Shalloway & Shalloway at 561-686-6200.

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