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Legal Notes: The Queen and Prince – lessons learned from their failures to do estate planning

In August, 2018, Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” passed away after a long illness at age 76. Earlier, in April, 2016, singer and songwriter Prince died at age 57 from an accidental drug overdose. Both failed to prepare estate plans. Aretha Franklin was gravely ill; Prince’s death was unexpected. Both were multi-millionaires leaving very sizable estates. Because neither prepared estate plans, their estates will eventually, and after a long time, be distributed to their heirs according to each of their state’s intestacy laws. Aretha Franklin’s heirs were her four living sons, one who has special needs, and Prince’s heirs were his five half-siblings.

Had both Aretha Franklin and Prince prepared their estate plans, they could have retained the privacy of their estates, there could have been an easy transition to the beneficiaries, and they could have avoided the probate of their estates. They also could have avoided much expense to their estates. There are now expenses of estate administration, legal expenses, and claims against the estates. There are also federal estate taxes due. Both were multi-millionaires, and both of their estates were well over the federal exclusion amounts. In 2018, the federal exclusion was $11.18 million for Aretha Franklin’s estate, and in 2016 the federal exclusion was $5.45 million for Prince’s estate. Because neither did any estate tax planning, their heirs will receive much less from their estates than they would have if there was estate tax planning because of the 40% federal estate tax rate.

Furthermore, if they both prepared their estate plans, their estates would have been distributed exactly as they wanted and not according to their states’ intestacy statutes. Aretha Franklin also could have made specific provisions for her special needs son. Prince could have also provided for those close to him instead of just his half-siblings, the heirs of his estate.

No one will ever know why both Aretha Franklin and Prince never did any estate planning. There are many possible reasons why people do not do estate planning. Some may mean to, but never get around to it. Others may find it intimidating or overwhelming. Finally, some may not want to think about it at all or are afraid to think about it.

The estate mistakes of public figures are lessons to all on how important it is to do estate planning, whether wealthy or not. It is also important if you have estate plan documents to review your estate plan every few years and sooner if your life and family circumstances change. This will ensure that your estate is distributed exactly as desired.

The views expressed in this column represent general information. To address your particular and specific needs consult your own attorney. If you need help with referral to an attorney, contact the Franklin County Bar Association at (413) 773-9839 or the Worcester County Bar Association at (978) 752-1311. Elder law resources may be found through the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Massachusetts Chapter, at or 617-566-5640.

Community Legal Aid (CLA) provides legal services free to people age 60 and older for civil legal matters with an emphasis on access to health care coverage (MassHealth and Medicare) and public benefits as well as tenants’ rights. A request for legal assistance can be made by phone at 413-774-3747 or toll-free 1-855-252-5342 during their intake hours (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and Wednesday from 1:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.) or any time online by visiting