PONTIAC, Mich. — Attorneys for Aretha Franklin’s heirs locked into sometimes heated battle Tuesday afternoon over control of the singer’s estate.
But near the end of a lengthy and multifaceted hearing at Oakland County Probate Court that at one point had nine attorneys conferring with Judge Jennifer Callaghan at her bench, the judge asserted her own control over matters, placing the estate’s administration under court supervision.
That means the court will now have a hands-on role with many major decisions in the Queen of Soul’s estate matters, such as sales of property. Franklin’s niece Sabrina Owens remains the personal representative for the estate.
It was the biggest resolution in a day that saw accusations and insinuations flying, revealing deepening divisions among Franklin’s surviving family members nearly a year after her death. Some family onlookers Tuesday occasionally scoffed and groaned indignantly under their breath as various attorneys stepped up to speak.
The judge also agreed to allow a handwriting expert to examine three wills ostensibly penned by Franklin, found this spring in her home. Erich Speckin, hired by the singer’s son Kecalf Franklin, testified it will take him about three hours to analyze the documents with gear including a microscope and electrostatic device.
Other family members may also enlist their own handwriting analysts.
The three-hour proceeding introduced several key revelations, including that more than $350,000 already has been distributed by the estate to Franklin’s four sons, and that $178,000 was stolen from the singer via bank fraud months before her August 2018 death.
The estate has earned $1.1 million from the gospel documentary “Amazing Grace,” attorney David Bennett told Judge Callaghan.
But he indicated that negotiations with MGM have snagged over a planned Queen of Soul biopic starring Jennifer Hudson.
“That (film) is more problematic (because of what MGM is offering),” Bennett said. MGM has announced a planned 2020 release for the film.
Discussing Franklin’s personal property — including items of potential historical significance — he said former President Barack Obama has asked for the famed hat worn by the singer at his 2009 inauguration. Unidentified parties in Detroit have also inquired about items for a potential museum display, Bennett said.
Picking up where the last probate hearing left off in June, an attorney for Kecalf Franklin, the late star’s youngest son, argued that he should have more input in estate decisions.
Charlene Glover-Hogan said the authority of current estate representative Sabrina Owens should be “restricted” until the status of the handwritten wills is resolved. She argued that Kecalf should be alerted to all property transfers and potential contracts.
Glover-Hogan contended that Owens has not provided Kecalf Franklin up-to-date information on estate dealings, and said Owens authorized the release of “Amazing Grace” contrary to wishes Aretha Franklin expressed when she was alive.
She also said Bennett has failed to provide promised documents detailing estate finances.
Bennett shot back, saying Kecalf Franklin has declined to sign a nondisclosure agreement that would keep those financial details out of the public eye.
“Ms. Franklin was a very private person,” Bennett said.
Bennett defended Owens’ work, saying she has skillfully navigated a knotty landscape left by an entertainer who “never had an accounting system” while alive. He cited $750,000 in uncashed checks Franklin once stored in her purse for months.
He said Owens also has been operating with a prudent eye on potential creditor claims, including a suit filed by the Internal Revenue Service.
“What has she done that’s been bad?” Bennett said.
“I do not believe (Kecalf) Franklin has the capacity to be a personal representative,” Bennett told the court.
An attorney for Clarence Franklin, the singer’s eldest son, also spoke emphatically in support of Owens on Tuesday and argued that Kecalf Franklin should not replace her.
Family members in the courtroom Tuesday included two of the singer’s sons — Edward and Kecalf — along with niece Owens and cousin Brenda Corbett. Two of Franklin’s grandchildren were on hand.
Tuesday’s hearing followed a flurry of court filings that reveal lines being drawn among Franklin’s heirs: In June, youngest son Kecalf asked the court to name him the estate’s personal representative, replacing Owens. He’s been supported in that effort by second-eldest son Edward.
Ted White, Franklin’s third son and a longtime guitarist who goes by Teddy Richards, has backed Owens in her role while asking to be named co-representative.
And the guardian for the Queen of Soul’s eldest son, Clarence, who has special needs, has stepped up in favor of Owens. In petitions filed last week, Jon Munger asked the court to deny Kecalf and Teddy’s requests to represent the estate.
“Kecalf Franklin, throughout his life, has not exhibited or displayed any ability or inclination to support himself and lacks the financial knowledge or ability to act as a fiduciary,” read the filing on behalf of Clarence.
Following the hearing, Kecalf Franklin handed a written statement to the Free Press and other media saying he is in “pursuit of Justice for the Queen.”
“Our mother has enriched the world with music, art and service of activism more than half of her life,” the statement read in part. “The loss of our mother has traumatized our family. Despite our grief, we find ourselves in a battle to defend and protect this legacy against those who wish to disrespect, slander and exploit it.”