Lessons From Aretha Franklin’s Holographic Will

The Queen of Soul left a holographic will under a couch cushion. What happened next is a valuable lesson for church leaders.

Aretha Franklin left two wills. 

One, drafted in 2010, specified how she wanted her $6 million estate distributed.

But another, handwritten and dated 2014, laid out different terms. This handwritten will, discovered in Franklin’s home under a seat cushion after she died in 2018, was filled with cross-outs and insertions and was generally unintelligible.

Franklin’s heirs challenged the handwritten will—also known as a holographic will—and yet, a jury in July 2023 found it was valid, overriding conflicting provisions contained in Franklin’s 2010 will.

A court now must decide whether the holographic will completely nullify the 2010 will.

The lessons from the late musician’s situation are important for many reasons, including what church leaders should know about how holographic wills may affect gifts involving their churches. 

What is a holographic will?

So, what is a holographic will? It is one written entirely in someone’s handwriting (the “testator”) and includes the testator’s signature.

Holographic wills are recognized in the majority of states (consult a local estate attorney to determine whether they’re recognized in yours), and are often considered valid even though no one witnessed the testator’s signature. As a result, the provisions of such wills take precedence over provisions in prior wills that are executed in compliance with state law.

And, as seen in the Franklin case, because holographic wills are so easy to create, they have led to many disputes by family members, churches, and other charitable organizations regarding their legal validity 

Earlier cases

There have been many cases involving the validity of handwritten wills leaving gifts to churches and other charities. 

Here are several examples:

CASE 1: What a difference a day made 

The day after executing her will, the deceased met with her pastor and his wife and executed a handwritten document containing the testator’s signature and the following text: 

“I want to donate $150,000 to God in order to build a church.” 

The church insisted that the handwritten document signed by the deceased represented a legally valid holographic will that should be probated. The heirs argued that the document merely expressed a present intent to give money and was not a testamentary instrument. A Michigan appellate court sided with the church, and ordered the holographic will to be probated. 

In re Estate of Smith, 651 N.W.2d 153 (Mich. App. 2002).

CASE 2: Only the lawyers prospered 

Church Law & Tax Co-Founder and Senior Editor Rich Hammar was involved in the case of a 93-year-old single man from Kentucky with no living relatives and an estate valued at more than $1 million.

When the man died at home, someone found a holographic will entirely in his handwriting that contained the following sentence:

“I leave my estate, in its entirety, to a nursing home that has a chapel for Pentecostal worship.”

More than 25 nursing homes from around the country filed claims with the probate court seeking distribution of the entire estate to themselves. Many of these homes had some affiliation with a church or religious denomination, although many of these would not be considered “Pentecostal.” 

A few were operated by a government agency, rather than a church or denomination, and were creative in describing to the court their status as a Pentecostal institution.

After 10 years of litigation the probate court ordered the entire proceeds of the estate to be distributed to a nursing home in another state having no ties to a Pentecostal denomination. 

By this time, the $1 million estate had been reduced to a mere $40,000. 

The remainder was spent on legal fees, hardly a result the testator could have imagined.

CASE 3: The Church got half … eventually

A woman drafted a holographic will that left half of her estate to her church. Upon her death, some of her heirs challenged the legality of the holographic will and took the case to court. 

A probate court concluded that the holographic will was invalid, and the church appealed. 

A Texas appeals court ruled that the will was valid, and so the gift to the church was enforceable. Unfortunately, the estate was significantly diminished through legal fees.

Estate of Abshhire, 2011 WL 3671998 (Tex. App. 2011).

CASE 4: Jane Doe, Esq. 

A woman (Jane Doe) died, leaving a holographic will that provided:

I, Jane Doe, do hereby make and declare this to be my last will.

1st. I direct my executors, the deacons of First Baptist Church, to pay all of my debts.

2nd.  I want a trust fund put in the First Federal Bank of $2,500.00 for Greenvale Cemetery to help care for it and help keep the road to the cemetery fixed. Interest to be used each year.

3rd.  If there is anything left, I want it put in First Federal Bank for my church to use the interest each year for mission work. That lost souls may hear about and know my dear Savior.

Jane Doe

Several heirs of Jane Doe filed a will contest with a probate court, claiming that the holographic will was invalid, and therefore the entire estate should be distributed to them with nothing going to the church. The heirs argued that the will was invalid because it did not identify the trustees, executors, or the “church.” 

The court concluded:

From a fair and unstrained reading of the will of Jane Doe it is clear that she intended to create two trusts, one for the benefit of the cemetery and one for the use of First Baptist Church in its mission program; and it is equally clear that she intended that her entire estate be so used. For a person untrained in the law we find that Jane Doe has been more than legally adequate in the drafting of her will … .      

Lewis v. Darnell, 580 S.W.2d 572 (Tenn. App. 1978).

CASE 5: Old MacDonald left a will 

John Doe lived alone on a farm in South Dakota. He executed a document entirely in his own handwriting purporting to dispose of his property upon his death. He died a few months later. 

The decedent’s sister searched his home and bank boxes thoroughly after his death but could find no will. She, the sheriff, and others went through the papers of the deceased in his home. Some were destroyed. Others were piled into boxes and stored in a rented barn near the home of a niece. 

The niece found a holographic will entirely in the testator’s handwriting that left his entire estate to his church. 

This will was submitted to the local probate court. All of the witnesses testified that the decedent’s home was a mess with important documents as well as worthless scraps of paper piled around the house without any system or order.  

In the light of these facts the court ruled that the holographic will would not be probated.

The church appealed, challenging the order of the probate court. The court reversed the ruling of the probate court and ordered the will to be probated.

In re Estate of May, 220 N.W.2D 388 (S.D. App. 1974). 

CASE 6: Church sues daughter 

A woman (Jane Doe) had been a teacher for many years and had amassed an estate of several million dollars. 

She was a long time member of a Baptist church in her community. 

However, she eventually joined a Presbyterian church, and attended services regularly until a broken hip reduced her mobility. She executed an estate plan in 1995 that left $1.5 million to her church. However, shortly before her death, Jane Doe gave one of her two daughters a holographic will that left everything to this daughter and nothing to the church. 

As this legal development from 2007 explains, “undue influence” is sometimes used to challenge the validity of a will.

The church appealed, claiming that the holographic will and its $1.5 million distribution to the daughter were invalid. The appeals court denied the church’s’s petition to invalidate the holographic will.

The church appealed, challenging the order of the probate court. The court reversed the ruling of the probate court and ordered the will to be probated.

Burson v. Presbyterian Church, 2002 WL 498054 (Cal App. 2002). 

CASE 7: Everything to the Church

A woman’s holographic will stated that she “wanted to give my money to the Mother Church in Boston Massachusetts as it has been a great help to me.” 

The church submitted the will to the probate court, but this was opposed by the decedent’s heirs, who claimed that the will was not in proper form and that the decedent’s entire estate should be distributed to them. 

The court concluded:

“It is considered by the Clerk that the said will has been duly and fully proved and the same is ordered admitted to probate and recorded as the true last will and testament of [the decedent] in due form.” 

First Church of Christ, Scientist v. Hutchings, 163 S.E.2d 178 (Va. 1968).

Why many states recognize holographic wills

Holographic wills are recognized in the majority of states, with some variations, meaning they are widely recognized in the United States.

According to one court, holographic wills allows people who are unable or unwilling to hire an attorney to make a valid will in their own handwriting. (In re Estate of Teubert, 298 S.E.2d 456 (W. Va. 1982).) 

In many, if not most, cases, the person drafting a holographic will is attempting to avoid legal fees. But legal fees are a small price to pay to ensure that a will is drafted properly and will withstand legal challenge. Holographic wills often lead to ambiguities since the testator has no legal training or experience in drafting such documents.

Don’t google it

The plethora of legal forms available online makes it tempting to create one’s own will.

But doing so can create unforeseen problems:

  • The will may not be properly executed according to state law, making the purported will invalid and unenforceable. Of course, an attorney will be familiar with the requirements and will ensure that the document is properly executed.
  • Using forms copied from an online source can be dangerous.
  • To illustrate, in one case, a Florida church used an internet-generated contract but failed to notice that it contained a “venue” clause requiring all disputes to be litigated in California. A court confirmed the legality of the venue clause, meaning that the church’s pastor and attorney had to travel to California for depositions, conferences, hearings, and trial, all at considerable expense to the church. 

As the cases summarized above illustrate, holographic wills often prompt immediate legal challenge, embroiling the parties in costly and protracted litigation with no certain result. 

Another problem with holographic wills is that they often are discovered months or even years following the death of a testator, making it difficult to determine inevitable questions of priority involving multiple wills.

For all of these reasons, church leaders should discourage members from using holographic wills, even if legally valid under state law.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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