We are constantly warning clients and friends alike of the dangers of do-it-yourself estate planning. The odds are just too high that a fill-in-the-blanks estate plan will fail. We hate to say we told you so, but here it is straight from the pen of Justice Pariente of the Florida Supreme Court:
“I therefore take this opportunity to highlight a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance. As this case illustrates, that decision can ultimately result in the frustration of the testator’s intent, in addition to the payment of extensive attorney’s fees — the precise results the testator sought to avoid in the first place.”
The case that Justice Pariente is referring to is Aldrich v. Basile, where the Court recently was asked to interpret a do-it-yourself will. Ann Aldrich wrote her will on an “E-Z Legal Form.” Ann’s big mistake was that her will gave away specific assets (i.e. my gold watch to my sister) but it did not contain a residuary clause. A residuary clause basically says “here is what to do with any asset I did not specifically mention.”
Ann’s will may have given away all of her assets at the time she made it, but she later inherited more assets from her sister. She did not update her will to include the new assets, but instead expressed her intent in a separate handwritten note that “all” of her worldly possessions should go to her brother. Unfortunately for Ann and her brother, this note was not a valid way for Ann to update her will or direct what to do with the assets not specifically given away. Further, the will itself, without a residuary clause, was not sufficient to “effectively dispose of” any assets not specified.
The end result was that Ann’s heirs under Florida’s intestacy statute (the State’s default will) shared in the property that Ann wanted to go solely to her brother. Even though it seemed clear what Ann really wanted, she didn’t express it in a legally enforceable way, so the Court had to follow the terms of the will. As the Court explained, the will was not ambiguous (which would have allowed them to consider Ann’s intent) – it was just missing some critical words!
The internet may provide data, information, and knowledge. But it does not, and cannot, provide legal advice. Please don’t do estate planning without first obtaining creative, wise, and experienced legal advice. The parties in the Aldrich case were fighting over an $87,000.00 bank account. The legal fees most certainly wiped out the bulk of that inheritance. Don’t let that happen to you or your loved ones.