Court file: Aretha's family huddled on estate as death neared

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
(FILE -2004) Detroit and Motown legend Aretha Franklin performs at the 25th Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival at Hart Plaza in Detroit, Michigan on September 6, 2004.

Pontiac – Court documents indicate Aretha Franklin’s family met and discussed the need to probate her estate just hours before her death last week.

Franklin, 76, died at 9:50 a.m. on Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer in her Detroit Riverfront apartment, according to her death certificate, filed in Oakland County Probate Court. She reportedly had been visited by family and friends in the days leading up to her death.

No will has been filed in the estate of the legendary singer but court records filed Monday by Franklin’s longtime attorney, David J. Bennett, and signed by her four sons indicate all are in agreement that Franklin’s niece Sabrina V. Garrett Owens, should be named as the personal representative of her estate.

Bennett’s law firm, apparently at the request of Franklin’s children, is standing by to assist Owens in satisfying any of Franklin’s debts and distribution of her wealth, estimated at $80 million in some reports.

Neither Bennett nor Owens, who lives in Ypsilanti, could be reached for comment Wednesday. But an Aug. 17 letter he mailed to Owens provides some insight into the family’s wishes.

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“On Aug. 15, 2018, the family met and discussed the necessity to probate Aretha’s estate,” he wrote. “They agreed to have you appointed the estate’s Personal Representative in the Oakland County Probate Court. This letter shall confirm our legal representation in your capacity as Personal Representative and not individually.

“As you know I have represented Aretha for over 40 years and I am familiar with her assets and businesses,” Bennett continued. “As to the probate proceedings, we have discussed the issues that may concern her debts, income taxes, costs of administration, marshalling of assets and your distributions.”

Accompanying documents waiving their right to appointment and also nominating Owens by name to the job were signed by Franklin’s four sons: Kecalf Franklin of Bloomfield Hills; Theodore Richard White II of Naples, Florida; Edward Franklin of Detroit; and Clarence Franklin, by his attorney. None could be reached for comment Wednesday.

Owens, who is an associate director of labor relations at the University of Michigan,  signed her acceptance to the Franklin estate appointment on Aug. 20, according to court record.

By court policy, the court or judge -- in this case, Judge Jennifer S. Callaghan -- does not supervise the personal representative in the administration of an estate except in limited circumstances. It is expected the estate will be closed out between five months and one year, but if that time has passed and it is still unsettled, filings with explanations for the delay must be made to the court.

“There are no court hearing dates scheduled at this time,” said Edward Hutton, Oakland Probate Court administrator. “There has not been a will filed in the estate but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there.”

Hutton said it is routine for applications for personal representatives in estates to be filed or for persons to be nominated for the duties. Those appointments do not have to be approved by a judge, he said.

Bennett, who stated he is paid $350 an hour, gave notice that he would provide statements of services to Owens before he was paid and, under agreement, his fees would be paid monthly.

Documents on file in the probate court had areas with boxes to be checked if a copy of the will of the decedent “was” or “was not” admitted to probate. Neither box was checked.

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