Judge overseeing Aretha Franklin's estate case puts property sale on hold

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
Probate Court Judge Jennifer Callaghan listens to attorneys concerning the estate of the late Aretha Franklin at the Oakland County Courthouse in Pontiac on Monday.

Pontiac — An Oakland County probate judge supervising legal challenges to the estate of the late Aretha Franklin ruled Monday that a proposed property sale cannot go forward until all heirs agree.

After the discovery of alleged handwritten wills were found in one of the legendary singer’s homes last month, it was presumed, including by the attorney of one heir, that Judge Jennifer S. Callaghan might rule on the validity of the documents. But Callaghan made it clear Monday that would be premature.

“I’m not prepared to do anything like that,” said Callaghan, in response to questions from attorney Charlene Glover-Hogan, who represents Kecalf Franklin, one of the singer’s four sons.

Kecalf has filed an opposition to the sale of property adjacent to his late mother’s Bloomfield Hills home. David J. Bennett, a longtime Franklin attorney who represents the estate’s personal representative — Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Garrett Owens — told Callaghan a $350,000 offer has been made on the home, which Franklin purchased for $225,000 in 2011.

Bennett noted Franklin purchased property adjacent to her Bloomfield Hills home for privacy reasons.

He noted Franklin’s niece is the only person who should be a personal representative and told Callaghan she continues to be working on the estate’s behalf, including discussing film projects with director Ron Howard’s Imagine Company, including a biopic of the singer’s life. Garrett Owens is also negotiating a public service announcement with the Levi jean company using her recording of “Think,” Bennett said.

Bennett said property needs to be sold to meet tax obligations, but Glover-Hogan argued there has yet to be an inventory done of finances coming in which she believed could adequately cover any taxes.

“We don’t even know how much money is coming in,” she told Callaghan.

Callaghan stressed a formal filing seeking to authenticate the handwriting and the wills has yet to be done. An appraisal of personal property in the home also has to be done, and the sons have all been given an opportunity to go through the home and mark items as “keepsakes” they wish to have set aside and not sold.

Attorneys David Bennett and Charlene Glover-Hogan talk before appearing in front of Judge Jennifer Callaghan in probate court concerning the estate of the late Aretha Franklin at Oakland County Courthouse in Pontiac.

Callaghan set a July 24 hearing to resume legal discussion on the sizeable estate, which is rumored to be $80 million.

“Not surprising, but no much has been done today except everyone has got to have a say and everything got rolled down the road,” said attorney Craig Smith, who represents Edward Franklin, who attended the one-hour court hearing.

Smith noted “there are a lot of assets and items “ that have to be gone through and appraised.

“They (assets) remain locked down and under guard,” he stressed to reporters outside the courtroom.

Smith said Franklin’s overall estate is still to be determined based on the demand for her music in the coming years.

“Is she going to be even more popular 10 years from now?” he posed.

Callaghan told attorneys she was in favor, but would not order, non-binding facilitation in which attorneys will huddle to discuss aspects of the estate before returning to court.

The alleged wills, as expected, have prompted legal questions, according to court documents obtained by The Detroit News.

Franklin, who died Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer at age 76, was previously thought to have not left any will despite being unmarried and survived by four adult sons.

But documents submitted to Callaghan indicate Franklin had given considerable thought about what she wanted to leave behind to her heirs eight years before her death.

According to the documents, on May 3, Garrett Owens “while continuing her examination of the home, discovered a key to a locked cabinet that she had been previously unable to gain access or open.” Inside Garrett Owens found “two purported holographic wills dated June 21, 2010, and October 20, 2010.” Garrett Owens also reached under the cushions of a living room couch and discovered a spiral notebook containing another purported holographic will dated March 31, 2014.

Garrett Owens contacted attorneys for all four Franklin sons and all met on May 9 to discuss the wills.

The Oakland Court filing indicates all the heirs and their counsel “have been unable to reach a resolution with each other over the admission, validity and dispositive provisions of the purported holographic wills.”

It's understandable there could be confusion by this latest chapter in Franklin’s life. Much of the handwritten instructions are hard to read and perhaps more difficult to interpret by those unfamiliar with the dynamics of Franklin’s family.

If truly written by Franklin personally, some sections contain asides about relatives, attorneys, and even a “Ha, Ha, Ha” and “BS” when describing someone she apparently felt had been less than sincere with her. In another aside, she allegedly expresses one specific attorney had been “grossly inefficient.”

Each document begins with the well-worn “being in sound mind and physical health” pronouncement; one noted “with the exception of high blood pressure, a mass on the pancreas, diabetes ... .”

A common thread in each of the wills is Franklin clearly wants her sons to be provided for, including a sizeable special needs and clothing allowance for one son, Clarence, whose location must “always be known to Eddie, Kecalf and Teddy.”

Franklin wanted her cars and property to be supervised by one son, and artwork, copyrights and future royalties from her music to be shared equally by all her sons. She also wanted her sons to have her personal papers, awards and gold records.

One provision was for two of her sons to “take business administration classes and get a certificate or degree.” She specifically mentions grandchildren are to also be gifted.

The only dollar figure listed in any of the paperwork is a $1.6 million bank account.

Among estate questions still pending is whether someone stole a $178,000 check from Franklin’s home a few weeks before her death.

The matter remains under investigation by the Bloomfield Township police but filings said the signed check was endorsed at an area bank. The person who cashed the check has been interviewed by investigators who said it has not been determined if the person had Franklin’s permission.

The person was not identified, and it is unclear if they are related to Franklin.

Bennett told The News in an earlier interview that Franklin left large uncashed checks, including from royalties, lying around her home. Some of the checks were so old that he had to have them reissued.


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