Nearly a year after her death, Aretha Franklin is still providing the world with drama befitting her diva status. When she died in August 2018, her family believed she hadn’t left a will, but three months ago, they discovered two handwritten wills, one in a locked cabinet and the other under a couch cushion, that gave conflicting direction as to how her estate should be handled. Now one of those documents is being examined by a handwriting expert to determine if it’s valid, which in turn will help decide who controls most of her finances and the future use of the Queen of Soul’s songs and likeness.
In the will that’s said to be written in 2014, Franklin named her youngest son, Kecalf, as the executor of the estate. It appears that she originally wanted another son, Teddy, to be in charge, but his name is crossed out, with Kecalf written on the same line, followed by the name of Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens, also crossed out.
Now, in the midst of a complicated dispute over the estate’s control, Kecalf has hired a forensic document specialist, Erich Speckin, to affirm to the court that the will was, in fact, written by Franklin in 2014 and has not been altered since. The other parties—Owens, who’s the current executor as decided before the discovery of the wills; Teddy; and another son, Clarence—can also enlist their own handwriting experts if they please.
As another forensic document examiner, Bart Baggett, tells Fortune, there are several steps a specialist will take in making this determination. What Franklin left behind is known as a “holographic” will, meaning that she wrote it entirely by herself, then signed and dated it, which is legal in Michigan as long as the “material portions are in the testator's handwriting."
The starting point for Baggett would be to get the original copy of the will, if available, to examine whether or not it’s been forged. “I always want to see the original because you can look under a microscope and see a pen lift, a hesitation, a striation,” he says. Striations show the distinctive force and the angle an author creates as the pen moves over the page, much like a skier would create unique curves through snow depending on how they distribute their body weight. “Those things under a microscope can be spotted, and if they're highly similar to the rest of the letter forms, then it would be very difficult to dispute that she wrote it,” he says.
By “letter forms,” Baggett means “the alignment, the spacing, the lack of organization—all that stuff is very critical to understanding her natural writing.” Because handwriting can change as people age and decline in health, he says that he’d have to compare the writing in the will to as many contemporaneous sources as he can find.
“Autographs wouldn't really work so much, but lyrics, handwritten notes, birthday cards—any other writing that she would've done. You're trying to compare and look for anomalies,” he says. He points out that, in most cases of fraudulent wills, the forger will type out the text and forge a signature because writing out a full page in someone else’s handwriting is nearly impossible.
“Honestly, I would find it shocking if the other experts found that it's not her writing because there's just a voluminous amount of it and it's so difficult to execute such an elaborate fraud. The skill level would be amazing. So many of the letters are similar and it's definitely a frantic sort of executed document, as opposed to a slowly traced document.”
If he had the will and other documents with Franklin’s handwriting, Baggett, who’s done roughly 2,000 document examinations and testified in around 85 cases, would then start with simple words—and, the, and to, for example—and see how the letters and any connecting marks, such as her T’s and O’s, compared side by side and overlaid. “Letter forms are one of like 67 features that you'd be looking at, he says. “If you are copying my handwriting, you might get the shape correct but what you wouldn't get correct is the speed, the striations, the pen pressure. All of that may be different.”
The hiring of Speckin to examine the document is telling, as his specialty is in dating inks. Kecalf Franklin is likely trying to convince the court that the document is definitely from 2014 and has not been altered since its discovery. “They would use UV lighting. It would see if any of the ink is different colors or by a different pen,” Baggett says. Then there are methods that require actually removing a portion of the physical will, usually a small pinpoint of a letter, to compare it to surrounding words and/or lines. “The actual ink testing, that is normally a destructive technique where they're going to basically disintegrate it and see how long it takes the ink to melt. The older it is, the longer it's going to take to melt in certain chemicals.”
This is all done under the supervision of a court officer or other official to ensure that the chain of evidence custody has not been broken, and therefore the document has not been improperly handled or modified in any way.
Following that, Speckin and any other expert hired would present their findings to the lawyers. “We write an official letter of opinion, then the lawyers then use that report to negotiate,” Baggett says. If all parties agree on the findings, then the will is accepted and the estate battle moves on. But, in some cases, another party’s expert might dispute the findings, leading to more hearings.
“It doesn’t happen a lot, that experts are on opposing sides, but it does happen for a couple reasons,” he says. “A, one of the experts needs the money and is compromising his integrity. Unfortunately, that happens in all expert witness industries, not just handwriting. B, which is the most common, is that the experts are looking at different evidence. Sometimes clients and lawyers feed the expert limited amounts of information to get the opinion they want. If I worked for you and I had your sister's writing but you told me it was your mom's writing, I may come to a completely erroneous decision.”
Then, it all comes down to who’s the most convincing expert in front of a judge or jury. “You make exhibits and build your case based on the similarities or differences, then you quote textbooks and say, 'This is why I believe this opinion,'” Baggett says. “You have two presentations and the one that seems more convincing will probably get the judge or juries.”
With Franklin’s will, Baggett obviously did not get the chance to examine the original document, just the PDF scans that were obtained by the Detroit Free Press, so he can’t make a judgment call as to whether or not someone wrote “Kecalf” in the line in question about who the executor of the estate is, or crossed out any of the other names. “The question is, is it the same ink? Is the ink written at the same time, and is it in her hand?” he says. “The crosses out could also be different. If they were done in 2019, then that ink would be fresh in the last year and a half and the other ink would be underneath, it would be five years old.”
There is, however, one thing going in Kecalf’s favor. “It does look good because he wants to validate it and, if he actually did it himself, he would not hire the best [ink specialist] in the country,” Baggett says. “To me, that that's congruent with him saying, 'I want to validate this. I didn't do any funny business with it,' but that doesn't mean funny business wasn't done. But yeah, you don't see somebody spending $2,000 to $ 3,000 to bust themselves if they altered the will.”
Once Speckin’s findings are revealed, the next steps in the estate battle will depend on both his findings and the parties’ ability to come to an agreement. As it stands, Kecalf only has the support of his brother Edward in his bid to become the executor, while lawyers for Owens, Teddy, and Clarence Franklin contest that he does not have the personal responsibility or financial wherewithal to control the estate.
To Baggett, it’s yet another reminder that everyone should have a will at all times. Most of his clients are everyday people, and he’s seen them battle it out over a house or pickup truck. “[Estate issues] happen to everybody and you're not immune to it because you're not worth $80 million,” he says. “Literally, just getting a piece of paper and writing a will would be one of the smartest things you could do.” Just be sure make yours a lot clearer than the Queen of Soul’s.
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