Holographic (or hand written) wills are valid in around half of the 50 United States. This includes Utah where we are practicing estate planning attorneys. While holographic wills may be deemed valid in your state, each state also has specific legal requirements, and handwritten wills can often create years of problems and legal battles, as it has for the Aretha Franklin family.
Aretha Franklin’s Holographic Wills
When Aretha Franklin passed away in 2018 it was believed that the “Queen of Soul” had no will or planning documents whatsoever. She had reportedly hired a lawyer to help her with her planning, but could not decide exactly what to do. Then in 2019, two separate holographic wills were found in her home. One dated 2010 was found inside a safe. Another, dated 2014, was found between the cushions of her sofa.
Legal Battles and Will Disputes
Because of the differences in the two wills, legal disputes arose, challenging the validity of the 2014 will. After around 5 years of back and forth, the court case was finally decided in July 2023, where a jury found that the 2014 document met all the criteria for a valid holographic will and in fact represented Aretha Franklin’s wishes at the time it was penned.
Will and Estate Planning Takeaways
Although handwritten wills are valid in many states, as experienced estate planning attorneys we would not recommend the holographic will route. And we definitely would not recommend storing your last will and testament in your couch cushions.
Franklin’s holographic will presented the courts with a myriad of problems, and was sometimes difficult to decipher. Her lawyer had even testified she was struggling to make up her mind about her estate planning, adding another wrench into the legal situation. One side argued that the document had been signed, while the other insisted that her 2014 will was only a draft that had been intended to be discarded. It was stuffed in a couch, afterall.
If you are going to create a holographic will, it is important to become familiar with the specific stipulations of your state of residence to ensure the validity of the document. You also must follow all the typical requirements for any valid will, including naming heirs, appointing legal guardianship for minor children, and naming an executor to carry out the wishes in your will.
It would be wise to provide photocopies of the will to trusted individuals and ensure that the location of the original document is secure as well as known to your future executor. In many states, the signing of holographic wills should be witnessed and we would personally recommend that it be notarized.
If you decide to change your holographic will and write a new one, destroy any old copies. Many of our clients want to keep old copies of their estate planning documents after we have made revisions for them. We recommend shredding them. Old documents only serve to create confusion, hurt feelings, and grounds for legal action.
No matter the size of your estate, and especially if you have minor children, estate planning is extremely important. Aretha Franklin’s estate was estimated to be around $80 million at the time of her death in 2018, and her children are still fighting about it in 2023.
Don’t wait too long. See a qualified estate planning attorney now to save your family headache and heartache in the future. Holographic wills are more easily contested than estate planning documents prepared by an experienced attorney. We have seen every imaginable problem that can arise from not doing planning, unclear or ambiguous planning, and DIY planning documents. We wouldn’t wish those problems on anybody.
To listen to our full podcast about Aretha Franklin’s holographic wills, click here.