After less than an hour of deliberation, a six-person jury in a Pontiac, Michigan probate court determined that a document from 2014 found in a spiral notebook in the couch cushion of the late soul singer Aretha Franklin, should serve as her will. Franklin’s sons had been in a protracted dispute regarding which of two documents should serve as her will and determine the distribution of her sizable estate. Both documents were handwritten, or “holographic” wills, and the jury determined that the 2014 document met the legal standard required for a holographic will. All of Franklin’s sons were to receive a distribution with either document, but the 2014 document favors her son Kecalf Franklin and leaves him two of her four homes.
Michigan law, like New Jersey, recognizes holographic wills, however a holographic will, as this case demonstrates, is generally problematic and not the best route to having your estate planning wishes fulfilled. Holographic wills are often not signed by a witness, leaving open the possibility that a family member will challenge the validity or authenticity of the will. A holographic will is often incomplete and rarely as thorough as a formal will. For instance, a holographic will could leave certain property to one of two children but fail to instruct what should happen if that child predeceases the testator.
New Jersey law also recognizes “writings intended as wills” if the proponent of the document can prove with clear and convincing evidence that it was the intent of the testator for the document to serve as a will, which expands the types of documents that can be submitted for probate in New Jersey. New York law, however, is more restrictive and does not have a similar provision. New York law also only allows handwritten wills in very limited circumstances, primarily for mariners at sea, members of the armed services, or those in their attendance during wartime, making timely and proper estate planning even more important for New York residents.