Attorney: Aretha Franklin's estate paid $3M in back taxes

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
Aretha Franklin in December 2013.

Pontiac — When the Queen of Soul died in August, she left behind a majestic musical legacy — and a king-sized tax bill, according to documents filed in Oakland County Probate Court.

The estate of Aretha Franklin owes the federal government more than $6.3 million in unpaid income tax, according to Internal Revenue Service “proof of claim” filings entered on Dec. 12 and 19.

The amount owed is cumulative, beginning with an unpaid assessed balance of $1,305,403 in December 2012 and including $552,718 due Dec. 31, 2018, the federal tax agency claims.

The filing says “no part of this debt has been paid and it is now due and payable to the United State Treasury at the Office of the Internal Revenue Service” and adds, “this debt has priority and must be paid in full in advance of distribution to creditors to the extent provided by law.”

An attorney for the estate, David Bennett, said Friday the estate has paid at least $3 million in back taxes to the IRS. Asked if the payment would satisfy the tax agency, Bennett replied, "The IRS is never satisfied."

Franklin, 76, died of pancreatic cancer in her Detroit apartment Aug. 16 and is survived by four sons. During her career, she sold 75 million records worldwide and won 18 Grammy Awards. 

More: Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul

Yet Franklin left no will for an estate estimated at $80 million, with untold sales and royalties still to come. When asked to comment Thursday on the IRS filing, Gwendolyn Quinn, a longtime publicist for Franklin, released the following statement, quoting Bennett.

“The IRS has filed its proof of claim in the ordinary course of the estate proceeding,” Bennett said. “This is not a liquidated claim, and it is disputed by the estate. The vast majority of Ms. Franklin’s personal 1040 tax obligations were paid prior to her death — something she wished to occur. The estate is diligently working to resolve any remaining issues.”

Bennett said the IRS doesn't exactly understand the ways Franklin made her money — performing at concerts and making recordings.

“She had a lot of (pay) checks lying around that she had never cashed,” Bennett said. “I had to have some of them reissued because they were so old. I don’t know why she didn’t cash them, but it seems that the IRS figured some of it as undeclared income and are going after it.”

Franklin was no stranger to tax problems or the IRS. In 2008, she nearly lost her home next to the Detroit Golf Club because of unpaid taxes, which the singer blamed on an attorney's oversight. Franklin paid $19,192 in back taxes and kept the Hamilton Road mansion, which her estate sold in late October for $300,000.

In 1992, the IRS slapped a lien on her Bloomfield Hills mansion for $225,618 over personal taxes not paid in 1991.

Franklin faced other legal action over alleged unpaid debts. In 2015, she was sued by a Bloomfield Township condo association, which alleged she owed $11,563 in fees and maintenance assessments.

The IRS filing for unpaid taxes is not the first time Franklin’s representatives have denounced claims against her estate as groundless. A $1 million-plus claim filed by a Colorado woman for unspecified reasons was disallowed by the estate at the end of November.

“I think she heard of the death, and it was just a stab in the dark,” Bennett said in an earlier interview in which he declined to discuss details. “There is no merit to it.”

The estate has said it will also not consider a $53,818 claim by a Detroit man for alleged professional services rendered for obtaining recording contracts in 2011-13. Neither the claimants nor their attorneys returned telephone calls Thursday.

The tax debt for Aretha Franklin's 1040s were stated as follows:

Dec. 31, 2012: $1,305,403.

Dec. 31, 2013: $871,792.

Dec. 31, 2014: $974,250.

Dec. 31, 2015: $2,147,457.

Dec. 31, 2016: $283,576.27, plus $14,171.01 in interest and $30,184.38 in penalties for $327,931.66.

Dec. 31, 2017, $134,263.37, plus $645.23 in interest and $85.65 in penalties for $134,994.25.

Dec. 31, 2018: $552,718.

Total due: $6,314,545.91.

Attorneys for Edward Franklin, one of Aretha’s sons, have filed a motion to be heard next month before Judge Jennifer Callaghan in Oakland County on a request that monthly reports on all estate expenditures and bank transactions be made available to all heirs.

“I guess it is a rather routine motion — but I don’t think there's anything that can be called routine in the Aretha Franklin probate,” said Craig Smith, Edward Franklin’s attorney, who is based in St. Louis.

“We feel it is best to keep everyone advised on a regular basis,” Smith said. “We aren’t asking for daily reports, but we feel it is not unreasonable to have timely reports made available. I guess it will be up to the judge to decide what is reasonable.”

Smith, an attorney and self-described “troubleshooter” for the Isley Brothers for more than 20 years, explained: “Ron Isley was good friends with Aretha and promised her he would look after her sons’ (welfare). This is part of that.

“We haven’t been denied anything … but we feel it would be good to have a ruling to avoid any potential future issues.  Yes, there is no will, but there is also no spouse or parents. There are her four sons — four brothers, who each represent a quarter of the estate — and who all get along. I believe we will work everything out.”

Two IRS officers — one in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the other in Pontiac — who filed the “proof of claims” this month could not be reached for comment Thursday because both were on leave due to the temporary government shutdown.

Greg Mahaffey, a former IRS officer in Pontiac for 32 years who is now in private industry, reviewed the documents and said it's hard to say what may happen with the tax claim.

“It appears the IRS is ascertaining various years and various amounts of what it believes is tax they are due,” said Mahaffey, who is now employed by Levy & Associates, a Lathrup Village-based company which specializes in tax resolution issues but is not involved in the Franklin case.

“It is unclear at this point if the amounts are accurate or if they will be challenged by Aretha Franklin’s estate,” Mahaffey said.

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