Aretha Franklin’s will was in her couch. Here’s where to keep yours.

July 16, 2023 Posted by MBW

Aretha Franklin did what she was supposed to in drawing up a last will and testament, but a crucial mistake left her multimillion-dollar estate in chaos.
When you fail to plan for your death, your heirs may end up fighting.

In this case, three of Franklin’s sons were battling in court over handwritten wills. The legendary music artist, who died in 2018, had a few: One was dated and signed in 2010, and it was found in a locked cabinet. Another, signed in 2014, was discovered in a spiral notebook under the cushions of a couch in her suburban Detroit home.

A jury recently decided the couch-kept will is the valid one.

I cringe at the amount of money and heartache that went into this family feud.

Here’s where the Queen of Soul went wrong. She failed to be clear about her final wishes — the handwritten wills had notations that were hard to decipher — and she didn’t properly store the will she may have wanted to be executed upon her death.

With all due respect to Franklin, is that the legacy you want to leave?
If the answer is no — and it should be — here are some options on where to store your will and other estate-planning tips.

Don’t store your will in the couch
Some advice you think would be common sense, but when it comes to estate planning, that’s not often the case.

If you have a will, you want to keep it in a place where it will be secure but also easily found. Under cushions on your couch is not recommended.

Safe-deposit box: There’s a big downside with this choice because the box might be initially inaccessible once you die. If your will is in the box, you can see the conundrum.
The executor may need a copy of the will to get access to the box. If that’s the case, and a court order is needed, it could take some time before whoever you’ve designated to handle your estate can retrieve the will from the safe-deposit box.

If you select this option, you may want to include your executor or the person designated to handle your estate on the safe-deposit box contract.

At home: You can keep a copy of your will in a fireproof and waterproof safe, but make sure there’s a duplicate key or that you give the combination code to your executor, personal representative or some other trusted person.

One risk about keeping a will at home and not secured is the possibility it could be intentionally destroyed by someone who has been disinherited or who doesn’t like what you plan for your estate.

With an attorney: You could create a duplicate set of original documents, one for yourself and one that you leave with your attorney for safekeeping.

But this option could also be problematic if your family doesn’t know the name of the attorney who has the will. And what if the lawyer shuts down the practice or retires? Firms typically tell clients such things but not always, which means heirs have to try to track down the original will.

Local court: Check with the local probate court about storing your will. Of course, you need to let someone know you’ve placed your will in the care of the court.

For instance, in Maryland, where I live, you can store your original last will and testament with an office called the Register of Wills. You give the court your sealed will in the jurisdiction where you live for a one-time fee of $5. The will can then only be released to you or a person you authorize in writing to retrieve it.
Also, keep in mind your will could be made public after you die.

Electronic storage: To keep your will safe, you could store it online. However, Nolo points out, most states don’t yet recognize electronic wills. This means you still need to have the originally signed copy of your will even if you store a digital copy.

With this option, there’s also the chance your document could be compromised in a data breach.
All options to store your will have pros and cons. Whatever you decide, be sure to tell the person designated to handle your estate where to find your will.

Leave a letter of instruction
Whatever choice you make, leave a letter of instruction that indicates a will exists.
To make things easier for your family, put together a binder and in it include a computer-generated letter with a list of important information, such as where you bank and important passwords. Tell your executor or personal representative where to find the letter. In the letter, indicate where you have stored the original will. You can keep a copy of the will in the notebook.
If you change your will, also update the letter of instruction.

Update your estate documents
It’s perfectly within your rights to change your mind about what you want to leave folks. But be sure to destroy any old wills or note in the new one that it supersedes any previous versions.

You should review and update your will every few years or whenever there is a significant change in your life, such as a marriage or the birth of a child. I’ve had many conversations with attorneys about cases where an ex-spouse inherited money and/or property because someone forgot to update a will.

Get a will
Franklin had a few wills, indicating she had thought about what she wanted to leave her heirs. But if you die without writing your own (legally, it’s referred to as dying “intestate”), state law dictates the disposition of your property. Go to Nolo.com and search for “Intestate Succession” to review, according to your state’s law, who is entitled to your assets if you die without creating a will.

Without a will, your assets could be given to a relative you haven’t spoken to in years — or don’t even know or like. Don’t assume that your children, siblings or parents will distribute your assets as you would have wanted. When there’s money involved, infighting among family members is common, trust me.
Having a will and letting folks know where it’s stored doesn’t guarantee that relatives won’t go to battle, but it might prevent a costly all-out war.

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