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Former Aretha Franklin lawyer wants piece of singer's estate

Pontiac — An attorney who said he renegotiated an advance from Sony Music Entertainment for legendary singer Aretha Franklin's final album among other legal work is seeking a six-figure payout from the estate of the Detroit icon.

Since Franklin’s August 2018 death from pancreatic cancer, there has been speculation regarding her estate and who will receive money from it, including her four adult sons. 

Franklin's estate, including real estate, bank accounts, vehicles, fur, jewelry and luxury cars is estimated at $6.7 million based on a 2019 court filing from the estate's tax counsel. Intellectual property, including master recordings, interests in music compositions, plus royalties at the time of her death, add another $10.6 million. That pegs the overall value around $18 million, although some industry estimates have been cited as closer to $80 million. 

None of Franklin's children participated in a Monday hearing where attorneys argued fine points of law, procedure and whether attorney Gregory Reed is entitled to request billings and correspondence that he contends reveal the extent of his business dealings with the singer known as the Queen of Soul.

Reed is seeking $159,000 for legal services he provided to Franklin, including the advance for her final album and with the U.S. Postal Service for a commemorative stamp bearing her likeness.

An attorney for the estate, Linda Watson, on Monday discounted the authenticity of Reed’s claims and personal notes from Franklin, which Reed maintains will hold up under examination.

Oakland County Probate Judge Jennifer Callaghan on Monday quashed subpoenas Reed had sent to the heirs and the estate’s special representative, attorney Reginald Turner, agreeing with Watson that the legal tool would be premature. Callaghan said she will issue a written opinion on the legal issues raised, including whether claims against the estate were filed in a timely manner.

Neither Watson nor Turner could be reached for comment Monday.

Monday’s hearing on Franklin's estate is one of several expected ahead of a tentative Jan. 27 trial.

“I got her respect,” said Reed, an obvious reference to one of Franklin’s more well-known hits and the title to a biopic released this summer on her life. “Now I also expect some (respect).”

The $159,000 figure includes Reed’s $375-an-hour fee plus civil damages for Franklin’s conversion of a record contract check “to her personal use.” In an interview with The Detroit News, Reed claimed personal correspondence with Franklin, including emails, reveal she was appreciative of his efforts and believed if he was successful in obtaining a larger advance as she instructed, he would be entitled to a “bonus.”

Reed maintains he was able to secure a $500,000 advance for Franklin, better than triple what a recording company initially planned to pay her for the "Great Diva Classic Album," her last release.

“She had left multiple messages at my office seeking help to increase her recording contract advance from $150,000 to $300,000,” Reed said. “I increased her advance by 325% to totaling $500,000.”

Franklin is survived by four adult sons: Clarence, Edward, KeCalf and Theodore. The estate has often pitted the siblings against one another in an effort to have the final say on their late mother's wishes. 

The first personal representative in the case, attorney Sabrina Owens, also Franklin’s niece, resigned in March 2020 following challenges to how she was administrating the estate.

She was replaced by Turner, one of Franklin’s friends and a prominent Detroit attorney. Attorneys for the respective brothers have contested fees paid out from the estate and the handling of property including several homes, a fleet of luxury vehicles, furs, jewelry and other personal property.

There have been more than a dozen attorneys of record in the estate. KeCalf had as many as five attorneys watching out for his interests. Among them is Neal Nusholtz, who filed to withdraw from the case because he has not been paid his legal fees and planned to sue KeCalf for the estate. Callaghan granted his request after a brief hearing Monday.

“I didn’t have any choice,” Nusholtz told The News on Monday of dropping out of the still-percolating litigation. “I didn’t think I had any right to sue someone at the same time I was representing them.”

Turner, the appointed special representative, has two attorneys representing him in court matters. 

Above this pyramid of legal power, the federal government demanded what it said was $7.8 million in unpaid income tax by Franklin between 2010 and 2017. She was the subject of an IRS audit at the time of her death.

Last March, the Internal Revenue Service reached an agreement with the estate for another $800,000 payment, 45% of future revenues and 40% to be held in escrow for future taxes.

About the same time of the IRS settlement, Franklin’s four sons were to each receive initial payments of $50,000 from the estate. Nusholtz told Callaghan on Monday he was largely responsible for the heirs receiving some funds now rather than losing it to tax penalties.

Complicating matters in the estate, Franklin died without leaving a last will and testament, although since her passing, four documents have surfaced which, depending on the view of attorneys, indicate her final wishes. Three were handwritten documents. The fourth “will” is an unsigned draft Franklin was reportedly working on since 2017 with a Detroit law firm.

While the documents all provide funds and property for each of her heirs, the bequests are not consistent nor in agreement on who should be executor. 

A determination on the wills is expected in the coming months.

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