E-Z Legal Form Not so Easy with Court Fight Over Will

May 27, 2014

Ann Aldrich probably thought she was doing well when she signed a will that left a list of her assets to her sister and if her sister didn’t survive then to her brother James. However, the will she signed in 2004, an “E-Z Legal Form,” was not drafted for her by a lawyer. Certainly unintended, the fill-in-the-blank form will created several problems that resulted in litigation and a portion of her estate going to neither her sister or her brother.

As we know life is unpredictable. In 2007, her sister died leaving real estate and cash to Ms. Aldrich, which she deposited into a new account at Fidelity.

In 2009, Ms. Aldrich died without a spouse or any children. She had not revised the list in her will of her specific assets to include the land and cash she had inherited from her sister.

Her brother James, then the sole beneficiary named in Ms. Aldrich’s will, was appointed to administer her estate. He asked the court for guidance on how to distribute the Fidelity account and land. Two nieces, the children of another brother who had predeceased Ms. Aldrich, argued that the will was lacking and that they too should benefit from Ms. Aldrich’s estate. The court agreed with the nieces and they shared in the Fidelity account and real estate. The property listed in the will went only to James.

In another attempt to do her own estate planning and make a codicil to her will, in 2008 Ms. Aldrich hand wrote directions about “all of her worldly possessions” going to James since their sister had died. The court found Ms. Aldrich’s writing did not meet the legal requirements for a will. Though this case was in Florida and decided according to Florida law, many states require subsequent writings to be executed with the same formalities as a will.

Another problem, her form will had no provisions for property acquired after its execution. When she signed her will, she seemed to have addressed all of the property she owned at the time. That might have been sufficient, but Ms. Aldrich acquired additional property after her sister’s death. She opened a new account for her inherited cash and she owned additional land too. The court found that her will lacked language to address the after acquired property. Had Ms. Aldrich deposited the cash into an existing account that was already specifically listed in her will, it would have distributed only to James.

Her form will made specific bequests to her sister and to her brother, but it lacked a residuary clause for items not specifically listed. A well-written will provides for the rest, residue, and remainder of the estate, anything not addressed in specific bequests. When a will fails to include direction for the residuary, the property passes as though the person did not have a will according to the intestate succession laws where she lived.

As the Florida Supreme Court wrote, “a court’s role is to enforce the stated intentions of the testator.” State law identifies the beneficiaries of an estate. That is how Ms. Aldrich’s pre-deceased brother’s daughters received an inheritance from her.

If you wish to name the beneficiaries of your estate and direct what they are to receive, you can opt out of the state-provided plan. As Ms. Aldrich’s estate shows, that is best done with a lawyer who will draft an estate plan for you rather than downloading a pre-printed form.

Justice Barbara Pareinte cautioned about being 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.”

It is easy and cheap to download forms and or buy will and trust kits from a store. The unintended results though can be costly and time consuming for loved ones. Ms. Aldrich died in 2009 and the ruling from the Florida Supreme Court was issued in 2014.

The court’s order can be found at http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2014/sc11-2147.pdf

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