Two sons of the late singer Aretha Franklin gave opposing opinions Monday about the Queen of Soul's final wishes, testifying in an unusual trial that will determine whether a 2014 handwritten document found in couch cushions will lead her estate.
Franklin died in 2018 at age 76 without a formal, typewritten will, and five years later her legacy still is tied up in a suburban Detroit court after a niece found different sets of handwritten papers at her home.
The issue for a jury: Does a 2014 document count as a will under Michigan law? If so, it could trump a 2010 handwritten will that was found in a locked cabinet at the same time. The older version, however, was notarized and repeatedly signed by Franklin.
Ted White II, a son who played guitar during his mother's performances, favors the 2010 document.
“With all the time I spent working with her administratively ... every other document that she ever signed was something that was done conventionally and legally” and with assistance from a lawyer, White, 60, told the jury.
He, acknowledged, however that the 2010 will found at the same time in 2019 was also written by his mother's hand.
There are differences between the documents, though they both appear to indicate that Franklin's four sons would share income from music and copyrights.
Four large posters showing pages from the 2014 document were presented to the jury.
That version crossed out White’s name as executor of the estate and named another son, Kecalf Franklin, in his place. Kecalf Franklin and grandchildren would get his mother’s main home in Bloomfield Hills, which was valued at $1.1 million when she died but is worth much more today.
Kecalf Franklin, 53, said he doesn't consider it unusual that important papers like a will would be discovered in the living room.
Asked by his attorney where Aretha Franklin often read mail, made important phone calls, signed documents and even slept, Kecalf Franklin repeatedly said, “on the couch.”
A niece, Sabrina Owens, who managed the estate immediately after Franklin's death, did not appear in court Monday, but her testimony from a formal interview was read aloud. She explained how she was determined to search Franklin's house for critical records.
"She would use the kitchen and living room — that was about it," Owens said. "So when I got to the sofa, I lifted up that far right cushion and there was three notebooks there.”
The jury will hear closing arguments Tuesday.
The last public accounting filed in March showed the estate had income of $3.9 million during the previous 12-month period and a similar amount of spending, including more than $900,000 in legal fees to various firms.
Overall assets were pegged at $4.1 million, mostly cash and real estate, though Franklin’s creative works and intellectual property were undervalued with just a nominal $1 figure.