When people learn that I am an estate planning and elder law attorney, some of them ask what I think about “do it yourself” wills, trusts, and other estate planning forms that can be found online. Of course, when I tell them that it is advisable to hire an attorney, it sounds rather self-serving.
A recent article in the ABA Journal speaks to my concerns about the potential pitfalls and unwanted consequences of using downloadable forms. It discusses the case of a Florida woman, Ann Aldrich, who used an “E-Z Legal Form” to create her will in 2004. In the will, she left all of her assets to her sister, with the caveat that if Aldrich’s sister predeceased her, the assets would go to her brother.
Sounds simple enough, right? So why, then, did the Florida Supreme Court rule that Aldrich’s two nieces were entitled to part of her estate? Because the E-Z Legal Form failed to include what is known as a residuary clause providing for property not listed in the will. That is, assets acquired by Aldrich after 2004, when she made her will, were distributed according to the laws if intestacy. With regard to these assets, it was as if the will had never been created in the first place! Florida intestacy laws mandated that the nieces inherit these assets, not Aldrich’s brother.
One of the concurring justices in the case, Barbara Pariente, said: “While I appreciate that there are many individuals in this state who might have difficulty affording a lawyer, this case does remind me of the old adage ‘penny-wise and pound-foolish.’ 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.”
Thank you, Justice Pariente. I couldn’t have said it better myself.