At Aretha Franklin’s funeral in Detroit a year ago, members of her family walked together toward her coffin, a solemn image of unity after the death of their matriarch.
But that harmony seems all but lost now, as Franklin’s four sons jockey for control of her estate and trade barbs in court over matters as serious as each other’s competence and as minor as who gets to drive Franklin’s Mercedes-Benz.
Hanging in the balance is the value of an estate that some experts estimate could ultimately be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Family squabbles over celebrity estates are not unusual. But Franklin’s case is especially complex because determining how she wanted her assets distributed involves deciphering whether any of the three hand-scrawled documents found in her home — one of them under the couch cushions — should be embraced as her will.
When Franklin died, at age 76, her family believed she had no will, meaning that her estate would be divided equally among her sons. With that understanding, the sons approved the appointment of a cousin, Sabrina Owens, as the estate’s executor.
But if a valid will exists, that formula would be upended, with far-reaching consequences for Franklin’s sons, whose earnings could change — perhaps drastically, depending on which will is declared legitimate.
“The wills changed everything,” Charlene Glover-Hogan, a lawyer for Kecalf Franklin, the singer’s youngest son, said at a contentious court hearing in early August.
Three of her sons — Clarence, the oldest, along with Kecalf and Edward — were raised together in the Detroit area and for years formed a tight-knit unit. But that connection began to break down once Clarence, who according to court papers has been diagnosed with mental illness, moved into a series of assisted living facilities. He now resides in a group home outside Detroit.
Another son, Ted White Jr., was largely raised by the family of his father, Ted White, Franklin’s former manager, to whom she was married in the 1960s.
Clarence’s court-appointed guardian, Jon Munger, has argued that none of the wills can be authenticated and that they contain contradictory instructions and are at points illegible. If Franklin is found to have died without a will, Clarence would receive a one-fourth share, like the other sons. But one of the wills does not even list him as a beneficiary, except to the extent that the other sons follow their mother’s dictate to take care of him.
Kecalf has been the most aggressive in court filings. His lawyers have complained that the process of cataloging the estate is taking too long.
“It is totally unacceptable that it has taken a year for the heirs to begin to find out what their mother owned on the date of her death,” his lawyers said in a filing. Kecalf also has asked permission for his son to drive Franklin’s car while a decision is pending on the rest of the estate.
Edward largely sides with Kecalf about the wills, according to his lawyer, Craig Smith. Ted White Jr. has asked the judge to consider all three of the wills as representing Franklin’s full wishes and has asked to be named an executor alongside Owens.
The judge has urged the family to settle its differences through a mediator. But lawyers connected to the estate said that they do not expect such discussions to begin for months.
In the meantime, the dispute has put on hold several projects, including an MGM biopic starring Jennifer Hudson and a season of “Genius,” a scripted series on the National Geographic Channel that is to be devoted to Franklin.