It's literally a plot point at the end of the TV show Succession, but an unlikely end to a battle over Aretha Franklin's estate hinged on this: some handwritten notes from the legendary singer were found in her home, one of them under a couch cushion.
Those notes were the basis for a Michigan jury ruling this week marking them as valid wills, updating a 2010 will the singer left to the 2014 documents. The decision is a sort of happy ending after a family battle: All four of Franklin's sons will benefit from her royalties and copyrights, NPR reports.
But hey, that sounds really messy. You may not be the Queen of Soul, but you probably have some assets worth passing on in the very likely event that you will die someday. If the estate battles after the deaths of Prince, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston have taught us anything, it's that you need to have a will in place just in case.
It sounds like a huge bummer and just the kind of thing you should procrastinate about, but this is the kind of adulting you really need to do—especially if you have kids.
Back in December, LEVEL spoke with the financial literacy brand Earn Your Leisure for our Winter 2023 cover story. In that interview, Rashad Bilal offered some wisdom on when folks should start getting serious about financial planning.
“Everybody's path is going to be different, but [you should start] as early as possible,” he said. “You don’t have to do every single thing at one time. You could start with opening an IRA and putting money into a 401(k). Then get life insurance. Get a will. Get a trust. You don't have to do every single thing when you're 22 years old, but start to think on that level. As you start to make more, as your life changes, you're already in that position.”
U.S. News and World Report has a basic guide to making a will: Basically, you should either find an estate-planning attorney or use some software/websites such as LegalZoom to get the process started. These days, even ChatGPT can help.
The next steps are choosing your beneficiaries (who gets your stuff when you die), your executor (who carries out your wishes according to the will), and who will get custody of your kids as their legal guardian. Those are the most important things to consider, but you'll also have to decide, very specifically, who gets which of your assets, including money in your savings and retirement accounts, your liquidated assets like vehicles and art, and investments you may have in, say, stocks and crypto. Don't say things like "divided equally" about objects that can't be physically divided—that would only lead to inevitable fights among your beneficiaries.
You have to sign your will and have it witnessed by someone older than 18; getting your will notarized is even better. You can attach a personal letter to your will and make sure your executor knows where your will is stored (either online or physically) and has access to it. You should update your will every few years to reflect an update of your assets and your wishes.
That's it! Now go ruminate on what life will be like after you're dead and gone—but try not to feel too sad about it. We all have to go eventually. Just make like Aretha: Say a little prayer, and get your affairs in order. (Hint: “In order” does not mean "nestled within your sofa.")