When Aretha Franklin, the ‘Queen of Soul’ died in August 2018, it was thought that she had died without a Will. Nine months later, two ‘wills’ had been discovered – one in a locked cabinet and another between the sofa cushions – and a dispute was under way to establish which will (if any) was valid and who would inherit her multi-million-dollar estate.
Both documents were handwritten with additional annotations, scribbles and amendments. Neither were prepared by a lawyer and neither were formally witnessed (although the earlier document was notarised).
Five years and three executors later, the court decided that the later document was valid and this month her four sons received her estate in unequal shares -presumably significantly reduced by legal fees.
It’s important to remember that the rules vary significantly between countries. Whilst the rules in Michigan can determine that you’ve made a will if ‘it’s in your handwriting, it’s dated and it’s signed’ [Simasko], in England that would simply be a letter of wishes. Interesting but of no real value in itself. Whilst English law allows you to write your own will by hand it must be signed in accordance with very strict rules.
Handwritten wills are usually written without professional assistance and can often be ambiguous or unclear. How can the executors determine the will-maker’s intent? If amendments have been made, who made them and when? Where writing is particularly unclear, the will-maker had poor eyesight or the document is written by someone else, questions may also arise as to whether the will-maker knew of or understood the document. Even if these issues don’t affect the validity of the Will, they can mean that the process is much lengthier (and more expensive) than would otherwise have been the case.
Even lawyers cannot prevent disputes arising however involving a specialist when making your will will ensure that the will reflects your wishes and that, if the will is challenged, the solicitor can give full details of the circumstances in which the will was made and why they believe it to be valid – even if it was stored between some sofa cushions.
If you would like to seek advice on your Will then please contact a member of our Private Client team.