What Happens to Aretha Franklin’s Estate?

Celebrities often set an example of how we should lead our own lives, for better or worse. Aretha Franklin died without a last will or testament. With an estate worth a whopping $80 million, the decision of where her assets will land is therefore left up to probate courts–a circumstance almost guaranteed to make trouble for her potential heirs. We should all learn from this example.

When a person dies without a last will or testament in Michigan, Franklin’s home state, the assets are supposed to be divided between living heirs. In Franklin’s case, that means that each of her four sons should get an equal piece. At least that’s what it should mean. When prominent and wealthy figures pass away, the estates are almost always contested. Any number of people can fake a relationship to the deceased and make a case for why they should be legally considered an heir.

It’s almost a certainty that Aretha Franklin’s estate will be picked apart over a long period of time.

When an artist passes away, the matter is complicated further. Who owns the rights to both published and unpublished songs and records could be debated for years, drawing out an already unbearably long process even longer. It’s not just about physical assets, but also the intangible royalties she would have continued to receive. Because there was no estate planning, probate courts will spend large amounts of time trying to sort out where those royalties went and in which accounts, many of which could be mostly undocumented if they’ve been left alone for years.

Another consequence involves taxation. Franklin’s estate will be taxed heavily, but because she left no direction for the transfer of her wealth, any eventual heirs might be taxed yet again when they pass away.

Most people who don’t have an estate plan say they intend to draw one up but haven’t gotten around to it. Others think that money is a limiting factor. Most people can afford to hire a lawyer but others can choose to make the necessary arrangements online.

More than half of U.S. adults have done no estate planning. Although the chaos is greater following a celebrity’s death, it can happen to anyone. In order to avoid leaving decisions you could have made for your family up to the court system, all you need to do is find an estate planning lawyer and carve out a small chunk of time from your busy schedule–especially if you don’t have an estate worth millions.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.