DIY Estate Planning: A Cautionary Tale

July, 2015

Ann Aldrich was a frugal lady. When it came time to write her Will, the Florida resident decided to use “E-Z Legal Forms” and leave everything to her sister, Mary. By preparing the Will herself, Ann thought, she would save the cost of using a lawyer and achieve the same result. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, plenty. The resulting Will was ambiguous, leading to confusion, a family squabble, and ultimately, a trip to the state Supreme Court.

The fatal flaw lay in the form Ann had purchased. It included no “residuary clause”-a standard Will provision that would have disposed of any assets that Ann either forgot to mention or that she acquired after signing the document.

In an effort to be thorough, Ann listed the specific items she wished to bequeath to her sister-her Florida home and its contents, a rollover IRA, a life insurance policy, a car, and various bank accounts. The E-Z Legal Form should have taken it from there. But the fill-in-the-blank document failed to say what should happen to everything else Ann owned.

As it happened, Mary, the sister who was supposed to inherit everything, died first, leaving her estate to Ann. These additional assets, which were now part of Anne’s estate, included cash and real estate-property Ann couldn’t have mentioned in her Will because she didn’t own it at the time.

Ann had named her brother, James, as her backup beneficiary. When Ann died a few years later, James thought he should inherit Ann’s entire estate.

But Ann’s two nieces disagreed. They argued that because the Will was silent as to the cash and real estate Mary had left Ann, those assets should pass to the nieces through the rules of intestacy. In other words, they reasoned that any assets the Will specifically failed to mention should go to Ann’s natural heirs-as though she had died without a Will.

Legal wrangling ensued, and attorney fees quickly began to mount. The Florida Supreme Court eventually heard the case and agreed with the nieces. The Will conveyed only certain assets, the court said, and the rest of Ann’s estate would pass to the nieces through intestacy.

Ann’s well-intentioned frugality had backfired, and it cost her family both money and heartache.

In her concurring opinion, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente cited the dangers of relying on an off-the-shelf form for estate planning:

“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,” the judge said.

“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,” she said.

The simple fact is that an estate plan is more than a Will, and a preprinted form is no substitute for legal advice.

A proper estate plan takes every aspect of your finances into account. This includes the extent of your assets, how property is titled, transfer-on-death provisions, beneficiary designations, and likely tax consequences. The completed plan will be tailored to your unique circumstances and leave you prepared for whatever lies ahead.

The good news is that having an attorney prepare your estate plan is an easy process. In two meetings, one to discuss your planning goals and another to execute the documents, you can prevent your estate from becoming its own cautionary tale.

This information is intended to provide general information about legal topics and should not be construed as legal advice.