How the late Aretha Franklin shows the importance of discussing estate plans with your family

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Typically, a will is an official document drawn up by a legal professional. It clearly outlines how you want your estate to be distributed after you are gone, and it should avoid any confusion or disputes.

However, a recent court case involving the late Aretha Franklin demonstrated that this is not always the case.

The “Queen of Soul” did not leave a formal will behind when she died. Instead, her family had to rely on handwritten notes found in her home detailing who she wanted to leave her estate to.

One note, found inside a locked cabinet in her home, named her son Ted II as the executor of her estate. But on a second note, found under a cushion on the sofa, she had crossed out Ted II’s name and written in her other son, Kecalf Cunningham, instead.

Without an official will, it was unclear which of her two sons was the executor of her estate and who would inherit her main residence, worth £850,000 when she died.

As the family could not determine what her wishes were, they were forced to leave it to the courts to decide.

A jury eventually ruled that the will found on the sofa was legally binding and the matter was settled, but not before a lot of distress for the whole family.

Her story demonstrates why it is so important to make your estate plans clear to your family.

Will disputes are on the rise in the UK

Figures reported by Royal London show that there were almost 10,000 challenges to the distribution of inherited estates in England and Wales in 2021. That’s an increase of 37% compared with 2019.

There are several reasons why inheritance disputes are becoming more common.

In some cases, it is because people use a DIY will, like those found in Aretha Franklin’s home. This could leave your estate plans open to challenge if you do not use the correct language, or you miss important provisions in the will.

Additionally, family arrangements may be less straightforward than they typically have been in the past. Divorce and remarriage are more commonplace, and those in blended families often fail to create a will that accounts for their more nuanced or complex situation.

Moreover, many unmarried couples also assume that they will inherit one another’s estate because they live together but that is not necessarily the case. As such, disputes arise when the surviving partner feels they are entitled to assets that pass directly to other family members.

Finally, the overall value of estates is rising. Indeed, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the average UK house price increased 1.9% to £286,000 in the 12 months to May 2023. Consequently, more people may be inclined to contest a will because there is a larger amount of money at stake.

Fortunately, by communicating your wishes clearly to your family now, you can normally avoid any disputes after you are gone.

Communicating your wishes gives you control over what happens to your estate

When you fail to put a clear estate plan in place, you give up control over what happens to your assets when you die.

This is because, if there is no legal will, your estate will likely be divided according to the laws of intestacy. Under these rules, only a spouse or civil partner, or a close relative can inherit your estate, in most cases.

If you are married or in a civil partnership, your partner will normally inherit the first £270,000 of your estate, with the remainder being divided equally between them and any surviving children or grandchildren.

However, that is not the case for couples who are not married or in a civil partnership. In this case, your partner does not automatically inherit anything from you. As such, your estate could go to people you had not intended it to, while those that you want to inherit your assets get nothing.

Discussing your wishes with your family and putting the necessary paperwork in place now gives you control over exactly what happens to your assets when you die.

Discussing your estate plans makes things easier for your family

Aretha Franklin’s family spent five years in a legal battle over her estate before the courts made a final judgment. Grieving for a loved one is already difficult enough, and this likely made the situation much harder.

You can help your family avoid internecine squabbles and costly legal disputes, and focus on supporting one another, if you give clear details about how you’d like your estate to be administered now.

Some of the key things you should discuss with your family include:

  • The wishes outlined in your will – including both valuable assets and those with important sentimental value
  • The details of your pensions and protection
  • The details of your bank accounts, savings, and investments
  • The location of relevant paperwork (including a list of your assets)
  • Contact information for your financial planner and solicitor.

By providing this information now, you reduce the administrative burden and make it simple for your family to action your estate plans. You also reduce the potential for any confusion or disputes.

Remember to update your will when your circumstances change

As your circumstances change and you reach certain milestones in life, your priorities may change too. It is important that your estate plans reflect these new priorities, which is why you may need to update your will.

There are many reasons you may need to change your estate plans and some of the most common ones include:

  • Marriage – Your existing will is immediately invalidated when you get married so you will likely need to update it as soon as possible. If you remarry, it is important to be clear about how you want to consider children from a previous marriage in your will.
  • Divorce – Your ex-spouse will no longer automatically inherit your estate, so you need to specify who will.
  • Having children – You will likely write your children into your will, and also give instructions about who should care for them in the event that both parents die. Additionally, you may want to update the will to give more control to adult children.
  • Buying a house – Your will should include all assets and reflect the most up-to-date value of your estate. As such, you will likely need to update it when you buy (or sell) a house.
  • Bereavement – If somebody that is named as a beneficiary dies you may need to update your will.

Whenever you make a change to your estate plans, be sure to communicate this to your family so everybody is clear about your wishes.

Get in touch

Conversations about estate planning can be challenging and if you need some support, we are here to help.

Email or contact your adviser on 020 3828 8100.

Please note

This blog is for general information only and does not constitute advice. The information is aimed at retail clients only.

The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate estate planning, tax planning or will writing.


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