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Aretha Franklin didn’t leave a will — who will inherit her estate?

Aretha Franklin performs at the inaugural gala for President Bill Clinton in 1993. | AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

Aretha Franklin’s voice made her the Queen of Soul with riches to match.

So what happens to the fortune she accumulated over a decades-long career?

Because Franklin was divorced and she left no will or trust to manage her assets after her death, the short answer is that her four sons will split her estate, experts say.

Of course creditors will have the chance to make claims on the estate, and Franklin had a history of bad debts. If other celebrity estates are any guide, shirt-tail relatives and long-lost friends could appear looking for a payout. Those questions will be resolved in Oakland County Probate Court, where Franklin’s estate has been assigned to Judge Jennifer Callaghan.

Franklin’s real estate holdings alone make her a multimillionaire, but it’s hard to gauge her net worth without knowing her debts and the value of the rights she retained to the music recordings that made her famous.


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Don Wilson, a Los Angeles attorney who represented Franklin for the past 28 years on entertainment matters, told The Detroit Free Press this week that the singer maintained ownership of the rights to her original compositions, which include well-known hits such as “Think” and “Rock Steady.”

In some cases, Franklin negotiated a portion of the copyright to songs written by others, he said.

“In exchange for her recording it, she got a piece of the copyright,” Wilson said.

Wilson said Franklin’s catalog hasn’t been appraised and it would be hard to immediately estimate its worth.

“It’s difficult to really assess what the value of that catalog is,” he said. “Catalogs are sold at a multiple of net earnings and that multiple can range anywhere from 10 times to 20 times.”

Wilson said some of Franklin’s compositions were covered by other artists, but most were retained by her.

“It generated a lot of money, but it generated a lot of money for one particular artist” Wilson said. “It seems like it was always Aretha’s version.”

Wilson said it’s unfortunate that Franklin didn’t establish a trust, something he’d urged her to do for years.

“It would have expedited things and kept them out of probate and kept things private,” he said. “I just hope (Franklin’s estate) doesn’t end up getting so hotly contested. Any time they don’t leave a trust or will, there always ends up being a fight.”

Franklin was known to defend her rights in court, twice suing filmmaker Alan Elliott for trying to distribute a film made from footage of a 1972 Franklin concert at New Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She won both times.

Artists like Franklin often see their net worth rise quickly upon death because of nostalgia purchases of their work, said Danielle Mayoras, a Troy-based estate planning attorney who co-authored the book “Trial and Heirs, Famous Fortune Fights,” about celebrity estates and the battles they can prompt.

In the hours after Franklin’s death Aug. 16, her “30 Greatest Hits” reached the No. 1 spot on the iTunes album chart while her iconic hit “Respect” climbed to No. 1 on songs.

“We might actually see her estate quadruple in size … because everyone wants a piece of her,” Mayoras said.