The Battle for Control of Aretha Franklin’s Estate Shows No Sign of Ending

A look at the Franklin family feud
aretha franklin estate
Squabbling over hand-written documents has divided the heirs of Aretha Franklin. // Aretha Franklin photograph by JStone /

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that a statement by Ms. Franklin in her handwritten 2010 will was directed toward Ted White Sr., father of her son Theodore Richard White II. In fact, the referenced line in the will referred to Edward Jordan Sr.  Specifically, Ms. Franklin’s will stated: “Edward Jordan Sr. should never receive or handle any money or property belonging to Clarence — or that Clarence receives — as he has never made any contribution to his welfare, future or past, monetarily, except $5 or $10 when he was a child.” The reference in the original article to Mr. White Sr. and Ted White II was inadvertent and incorrect. We sincerely regret this error.

In late May, the National Geographic channel begins airing the third season of its acclaimed Genius biography series, an eight-episode dramatization that this time focuses on the life and times of a Detroit original, one Aretha Franklin. It’s sure to be as soapy and larger-than-life as the preacher’s-daughter-turned-Queen-of-Soul’s reign itself — but don’t think for a second the real-life drama ended when she was laid to rest in that epic, glitzy eight-hour funeral in August 2018.

No, Franklin’s afterlife has been as eccentric and dramatic as all that came before. Nearly two years after her death, it remains unclear who her rightful heirs are, who should be the public face of her estate, and whether she had a will. It is all a hot mess that appears to be spinning inexorably toward an explosive trial in Oakland County Probate Court later this year. It’s also quite confusing. So, before the matter devolves further, as it seems certain to do in coming months, here is a primer:

What happened?

Franklin succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 76 on Aug. 16, 2018, without a will filed with any of her attorneys. As a result, her estate was expected to be split evenly among her four sons, and they agreed to install their cousin — Franklin’s niece and confidante, Sabrina Owens — as the estate’s executor. Then, in May 2019, Owens and longtime Franklin attorney David Bennett revealed that two handwritten documents were found in her Birmingham home — one from 2014 in a spiral notebook under her sofa cushions, the other from 2010 in a locked cabinet — that outline how Franklin wanted her estate divvied up and whom she wanted managing it.

What’s at stake?

Millions of dollars, of course. Franklin’s estate was estimated to be worth $17 million as of last summer, although Bennett says she owed $8 million in taxes at the time of her death. As is often the case with music icons, Franklin’s earning power increased exponentially upon her passing, but that all depends on how smartly her recordings and likeness are handled.

Are those really “wills”?

Believe it or not, maybe. Michigan law doesn’t require any notarization or witnesses to make a will valid, only that it is signed and that it can be proven the deceased wrote it in the absence of coercion. Typically, but not always, the most recent valid document rules the day.

So, what did these wills say?

A lot, actually. The 2010 edition dictated regular allowances and bequests of specific items to her sons — Clarence, Edward, Kecalf, and Ted White Jr. It also tossed off beyond-the-grave zingers at people she felt had wronged her, including ex-husband Edward Jordan Sr., who, she wrote, “never made any contribution to [their son Clarence’s] welfare, future or past, monetarily, except $5 or $10.” The 2014 version more simply divvies up her assets among her children and grandchildren but relies on her three youngest sons to determine how much money their oldest brother, Clarence, needs. Clarence, for decades, has lived in a group home near Detroit because of chronic mental illness and is represented by a court-appointed attorney.

Why has this gotten so ugly?

The 2010 will named Owens and Ted as Franklin’s “personal representatives” — Michigan legalese for estate executors — but in the 2014 one, Franklin wrote in the names of Owens, Ted, and Kecalf and then, apparently, crossed out the first two. In the tussle over who gets to run Aretha Inc., Kecalf has accused Owens and Bennett of mishandling the estate in ways big (plans to sell real estate) and petty (Owens drove Aretha’s 2016 Mercedes). Owens and Bennett have slapped back, noting that 49-year-old Kecalf didn’t complain when the estate paid for his power bill and for lawyers to deal with his 2019 DUI arrest. (Owens also says she drove the car weekly to keep it in “operational condition.”)

What’s next?

In March 2020, Oakland County Judge Jennifer Callaghan appointed Reginald Turner, a prominent Detroit attorney who is also the president-elect of the American Bar Association, to replace Owens as temporary personal representative for the estate. Turner, a longtime friend of Aretha’s, takes over after Owens quit in January 2020, saying in a court filing that the family feud “is not what [Aretha] would have wanted for us.” A trial to decide which will is valid and who will control the estate’s business matters is expected to start in August 2021. Meanwhile, the estate struck a deal with the IRS in early March 2021 to pay off millions in back federal income taxes owed by the singer at the time of her death.

About that funeral …

The funeral for Aretha Franklin was as over-the-top as she was. Ariana Grande was groped by a bishop. A speaker dissed Black Lives Matter. Bill Clinton and Louis Farrakhan looked chummy. Oh, and according to court filings earlier this year accounting for how her money had been spent since her death, the service may have cost the late Queen of Soul’s estate as much as $200,000. Here are a few of the big-ticket items:

$51,304Flowers from Blossoms Florist in Birmingham

$21,675 Printing of programs and signage

$13,106St. Regis Hotel reservations for family and VIPs

$9,000to Nelson Entertainment for “orchestral arrangements”

$5,000to Publicist Gwendolyn Quinn

$3,982Clothes and jewelry

$3,431Funeral security

$1,869Musical director Brian Dickens

$1,624Woodlawn Cemetery fees

$1,000Kearn Bradley, music direction fee