Can a Handwritten Will Get Any R.E.S.P.E.C.T.?

May 22, 2019

Aretha Franklin’s estate is back in the news, this time for a controversy surrounding recently discovered handwritten documents that may — or may not — be accepted by the court as her official will.

But can a handwritten document really count as a will? In some cases, yes.

In Michigan, where Franklin’s case will be decided, a handwritten will is valid so long as it is dated, the material provisions of the will are handwritten, and the decedent signs the document by hand. The proponent of the handwritten documents must prove these basic elements to the court before the document can be probated as part of Franklin’s will.

If Franklin had typed the document on a computer, then printed and signed it, it might have been a tougher case to prove, even though the documents would have been much easier to read. 

One Michigan court recently found a way around the “handwritten” requirement and permitted a typed document in the “notes” app on the person’s phone to be admitted as his will. The facts in that case are very specific, and individuals should not rely on an app to document their last wishes. But the court’s determination to find a way to permit the “will” in that case to be valid could suggest a gradual shift toward greater acceptance of the circumstances of today’s world, in which most “handwriting” is done digitally. For more about that case, see In re Estate of Duane Frances Horton on page 10 of McGuireWoods’ April 2019 Fiduciary Case Summaries.

At the other end of the spectrum, New Jersey recently admitted a will written in the most primitive way possible — in the person’s own blood! For more that case, see In the Matter of the Will of E. Warren Bradway on page 14 of the McGuireWoods’ January 2019 Fiduciary Case Summaries.

The court has yet to rule on whether and how the handwritten documents will influence the administration of Franklin’s estate, but a long and costly legal process is in store for those interested in her estate.

Watch for a more detailed analysis of Franklin’s case, lessons from other celebrity estates gone wrong and a look at some other bizarre holographic will cases.