In the two weeks since the death of Aretha Franklin, the world has grieved, mourned and offered outpourings of love in a day-long public funeral that drew everyone from fellow artists to religious leaders to former presidents. While Franklin’s formidable legacy and impact is certain, however, the fate of her estate might end up a more contentious matter.
That’s because she died without leaving a will. The Queen of Soul — who was one of the best-selling musical artists of all time with more than 75 million records sold worldwide, to say nothing of her 18 Grammy Awards or numerous other accolades attesting to artistic force — reportedly had a net worth of around $80 million. Under the law in Michigan for deaths without a will, the state where Franklin lived and died, her estate should be evenly divided among her four adult sons: Ted White Jr., Kecalf Franklin, Edward Franklin and Clarence Franklin.
But it’s unfortunately likely, given what’s happened in similar situations with high-profile celebrity estates in the past, that ownership over Franklin’s assets will be contested. When Prince died in April 2016, he left behind an estate estimated to be worth between $150 million and $300 million, but the musician had no will. Two years later, the legal mess of what belongs to who still has yet to be untangled. The heirs that have come forth to insist upon ownership of his estate include five half-siblings, one of whom hadn’t seen Prince for 15 years. Prince also left behind thousands of hours of unpublished music, and both the rights and releasability of those tracks have been up for raucous debate in the absence of a will’s clear directive. “What death does to a legacy is that it can increase the legal conflicts, the cultural conflicts, who owns the artist and who gets to define who he is,” Arun Saldanha, a professor who organized the Prince From Minneapolis symposium, told the Washington Post earlier this year.
Experts have estimated that Franklin would have owned various financial accounts and investments in addition to valuable personal property and real estate. There’s also her music copyrights to consider: Ownership over royalty streams, in the age of digital streaming’s continuous payments, can prove much more valuable than physical possessions. (It’s worth noting that Franklin would’ve had a significantly higher net worth if her songs had received performance royalties from radio play; since her death, artists who’ve long protested what they see as the radio “loophole” have rallied together to campaign against it anew.) And if Franklin left behind any unreleased music, we might see a fierce battle over it yet.