On August 16th, the beloved Queen of Soul passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She left behind an estate of reportedly $80 million and four adult sons—one of whom has special needs.
Unfortunately, Aretha Franklin joins the roster of celebrities, like Prince, who failed to leave behind an estate plan. However, Franklin and Prince are not alone; in fact, they help make up the 60% of American adults that do not have a Will or Living Trust. And as much as 70% of African-Americans do not have a Will or Living Trust in place, according to Black Enterprise. Caring.com reports that the main reason for this is simply not getting around to doing it.
Nonetheless, the issue that a lack of estate planning creates is not so much the valuation of those assets; rather, it is the mess that may potentially unfold—especially with an estate as big as Franklin’s. Beyond the reality of family drama that may ensue, the mistake of not planning can be costly. Even more unfortunate is that the burden of this all falls on the shoulders of Franklin’s sons, who are her natural heirs under Michigan’s intestacy laws.
Reports indicate that Franklin’s sons opened up a probate to begin the process of administering her estimated $80 million estate. But one of the biggest problems with probate is the very public nature of the case itself. Where a Living Trust affords the Grantor (i.e. the person who creates the Trust) a great deal of privacy, probate does not. Imagine millions of people finding out the ins-and-outs of your personal finances—or even how much you stand to inherit!
Moreover, the size of an estate is one of the main factors that is determinative of the type of administration that can be done—which in turn affects the length of the entire case (and effectively, the cost). In Florida, an estate as big as Franklin’s would require a formal administration, which can take more than two years to be completely administered. Take for example, Prince: he died back in 2016 with an estate worth $200 million—but his family has yet to receive any of it, as there is disagreement between the Executor of his estate (Comerica Bank and Trust) and the IRS as to how the estate is to be divided. Or, take Bob Marley, for instance: he died back in 1981 without a Will, and nearly four decades and many-a-court-battles (in three different countries) later, his family and others continue to fight over the estate to this day.
To add further insult to injury, probate is costly. In the United States, Americans spend close to $2 billion annually on probate costs—more than half of which is paid in attorney’s fees. This is not inclusive of the taxes that must be paid on the estate. Uncle Sam currently applies a whopping 40% tax rate on estate’s of over $11.8 million (unless those assets are left to charity, of course.) This means that the IRS could receive $27.5 million from Franklin’s estate. And to make matters worse, Uncle Sam can take another bite of her estate when her children pass away.
Additionally, Franklin’s mistake of not planning can end up costing her son, Clarence, who has special needs, to lose any government benefits, such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Such programs limit recipients from earning more than $1,180 per month in income in addition to having more than $2,000 in assets. Once a person surpasses this threshold, he/she will no longer be entitled to receive financial assistance. Had Franklin set up a Living Trust, Clarence’s benefits would not be jeopardized, as anything he stands to inherit would have been put in a special needs trust. These types of trusts, which are not subject to probate, allow disability recipients to continue getting benefits while still being able to receive distributions from his/her inheritance.
It may be years before we find out what ultimately happens with the Queen’s estate. And while it is natural for us to refuse to face our mortality, it is best to plan for the sake of your loved ones and your hard-earned money—especially if you want to ensure that they receive the inheritances you intended.
Ms. Franklin, we will say a little prayer for you…