Aretha Franklin estate shakeup: Niece to resign as executor while family conflict roils

Seeking to “calm the rift in my family,” Aretha Franklin’s niece will step down as personal representative of the late singer’s estate, according to documents obtained in court by the Detroit Free Press.

Sabrina Owens, who has overseen business and probate matters since the Queen of Soul’s August 2018 death, filed a petition Thursday in Oakland County Probate Court giving two weeks’ notice of her resignation.

In a detailed, revealing letter, Owens discloses new information about the years leading up to Franklin’s death and many of the business affairs since her passing. (The full letter is posted below.)

Her resignation comes amid increasingly heated family drama inside and outside the Pontiac, Michigan, courtroom, where Franklin’s estate is being hashed out under Judge Jennifer Callaghan.

“My primary goal was to honor my aunt by handling her business professionally, fairly and within the law,” Owens wrote. “In spite of my best efforts, my role with the estate has become more contentious with the heirs. Given my aunt’s deep love of family and desire for privacy, this is not what she would have wanted for us, nor is it what I want.”

Sabrina Owens, Aretha Franklin's niece, will step down as executor of the Queen of Soul's estate.

Owens will continue in the executor role for the immediate future, and it’s unclear who might eventually take over. Judge Callaghan has scheduled a hearing on the matter for March 3. Franklin’s youngest son, 49-year-old Kecalf Franklin, has previously petitioned to take over the reins, but his efforts have been resisted by two of Franklin’s other sons.

As the estate’s personal representative, Owens has handled a host of high-profile Aretha Franklin activity, including music licensing, awards shows and negotiations for three film projects. One of those movies, the gospel documentary “Amazing Grace,” premiered last year and netted the estate $1.1 million. Owens said the final phases of negotiations are under way for the Jennifer Hudson-led biopic “Respect” and National Geographic’s eight-part “Genius” series, both now filming.

Owens’ letter also details various real estate and tax dealings she has overseen since the Queen of Soul’s passing.

Kecalf Franklin earlier this month attacked MGM’s “Respect” project, complaining that filmmakers have not consulted him for input.

In Thursday’s letter, Owens indicated that family tensions accelerated with the May 2019 discovery of three handwritten wills in Franklin’s home. Those documents contained conflicting instructions from the singer — including various choices for estate executor — complicated by strikethroughs and other revisions. 

“That is when relationships began to deteriorate with the heirs,” Owens wrote.

Sabrina Owens, Aretha Franklin's niece, reacts with friends Rosalyn Harrison and Kathy Moore as "Amazing Grace" producer Alan Elliot catches a large marketing photo from falling as they take a photo during the VIP Pre-Reception for the film at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit on March 25, 2019. The film was one of a number of estate matters Owens shepherded.

Owens’ filing sheds some new light on the years leading up to Franklin’s death of a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.

When Franklin first fell ill in 2010, Owens was among the first to learn the news, according to her letter. A doctor had just received worrisome lab results but was unable to reach the singer — who had just left Detroit for a concert appearance — and asked Owens to track her down.

“He asked that I locate her immediately and direct her to ‘turn the bus around,’ ” Owens wrote. Franklin did just that, she said.

Owens, a human-resources executive with the University of Michigan, said she was by the Queen of Soul’s side for the eight-year medical saga that unfolded.

“It became clear to me that my aunt’s health was steadily declining,” she wrote.

Owens was tapped by Franklin to handle various personal and business matters, and in February 2018, six months before the singer’s death, the niece “quietly started drafting the blue print for her home going service, based on what I believed my aunt would have wanted.”

“The result was a weeklong celebration of her life, in services and events in August 2018,” Owens wrote.

Owens said Franklin’s four sons — her cousins — asked her to become the estate’s personal representative. She accepted the role, she said, assured she could move forward with the late star’s interests at heart.

“She trusted me and was always confident I would exercise good judgment and try to make the best decisions on her behalf,” Owens wrote. “She often said that I was ‘worth my weight in gold.'”

The niece said she took on the task with two conditions: that “no fractured relationship develop within the family” and “we did not end up in court disputes over disagreements with the estate.”

Both have happened, Owens said.

“I hope that my departure will allow the business of the estate to continue, calm the rift in my family and allow me to return to my personal life,” she wrote. “I love my cousins, hold no animosity towards them, and wish them the best.”

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.

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