Aretha Franklin was many things: The Queen of Soul, two-time Rolling Stone “greatest singer” title holder, and one of the best-selling female artists of all time. She was also the mother-of-four sons, who hit the headlines recently following the end of a two-day trial surrounding the distribution of their mother’s multi-million-dollar estate.

The trial centred around Aretha’s two hand-written wills, one dated June 2010, another dated March 2014. The earlier will detailed an “even distribution” of assets between her sons, with a condition that two of her sons attain certificate of degrees in business classes before inheriting their portion of the estate. The 2014 will advised that three sons were to split her “royalties and bank funds” evenly, while her youngest son was to inherit her mansion.

The differences between the wishes presented in each document fuelled a five-year dispute between Aretha’s children, which eventually saw a court ruling that the 2014 document – found under her sofa – was a valid will.

Aside from the emotional stress, which was undoubtedly endured by everyone involved, the process of disputing a will is timely and costly. According to a 2022 UK Inheritance Disputes Report, 3 in 4 people are likely to experience a will, inheritance, or probate dispute in their lifetime, with disputes among siblings being the most common. 

When it comes to succession planning, a trustee can be invaluable in helping to avoid such disputes arising.

A trustee may be guided by a letter of wishes of the settlor of the trust, which can include their wishes surrounding the distribution of their assets upon their demise. Unlike a trust deed, a letter of wishes is not legally binding, however can provide useful guidance to trustees as to the Settlor’s intentions and can be updated throughout the Settlor’s lifetime.

The value of a letter of wishes was perhaps best demonstrated when we dealt with a  complex family office case, which saw us attain a blessing from The Grand Court of the Cayman Islands to distribute a client’s assets under Shari’a Law.

In this case, the Settlor’s letter of wishes identified a narrow class of people to benefit from the estate, despite an enormously wide class of beneficiaries under the trust deed.

We embarked on a gargantuan task of collating a family tree to identify – what amounted to – hundreds of beneficiaries, many of whom were minors. Working in partnership with specialist advisors, including lawyers, we engaged in careful discussions about the most suitable distribution of the assets, keeping the Middle Eastern culture of the family at the heart of our decisions.

Having reestablished the Settlor’s intentions frequently throughout his lifetime, we were assured that his letter of wishes was relevant and should be considered within our decision making process.

We debated the issue at length, and ultimately decided that a distribution of assets to the Shari’a heirs of the Settlor was the most appropriate way to proceed. After making this decision, we applied for – and attained - a blessing from the court of the decision, which would protect the inheriting heirs from any claims made by other beneficiaries; effectively making the distribution of assets indisputable.

When considering succession planning routes, high- and ultra-high-net-worth individuals would be prudent to learn a lesson from Aretha and “think about what you’re trying to do…”. If you want to ensure that your wealth and assets are protected for future generations, and that the decision over their distribution is made objectively, then engaging a trustee is certainly advisable over leaving a handwritten will under your sofa.