Relying on the Internet for Your Estate Planning Can Lead to Disaster
The Internet can be wonderful. So much information at our fingertips can allow us to do things ourselves that in the past would have been beyond our knowledge and experience. Car repairs, home improvements, helping our kids with math homework; with so many resources at our disposal, it can be tempting to rely on what comes out of our laptops instead of seeking the advice of a professional.
We all like to save a little money by doing things ourselves, and most often we can take comfort in the fact that if our "do it yourself" efforts don't work out, we can always run back to the plumber or mechanic to save us from ourselves. However, if you take this DIY approach with your estate planning and rely on a downloaded will or other document instead of getting the help of an experienced estate planning attorney – even if you believe you have a very simple estate – you may be making a mistake that no one will be able to fix.
"EZ"? Not Quite.
In Florida, the recent tale of the late Ann Aldrich shows what can happen when the promise of a cheap and simple "EX Legal Form" downloaded from the Internet turned into costly litigation that resulted in the opposite of what she likely intended. Ms. Aldrich had a relatively simple estate with a limited number of assets and used on online the aforementioned "EZ" will form to prepare her. In the bare-bones form, she listed all of her assets and specified that her property was to be left to her sister, and if her sister died first, then her property would go to her brother. When her sister did in fact die first, the sister left money and property to Aldrich. The form will Aldrich prepared, however, did not contain a residuary clause or other language to address what was to happen to any property she acquired after she executed the will.
When Aldrich passed away, her brother became personal representative of the estate and filed an action claiming that he should get the entire estate, including the after-acquired money and property from their sister. But two nieces claimed that since the will was silent as to these assets, they should pass under Florida's intestacy laws.
The Florida Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision in favor of the nieces, finding that the llack of a residuary clause meant that the disposition of the after-acquired property would be determined by Florida law. The Court acknowledged that Aldrich may have in fact wanted all of her property to pass just like the assets she specified in her will, but put the blame for this likely unintended result squarely on the insufficiency of the "E-Z" form that Aldrich used for her will. Nothing that the form "did not have space to include a residuary clause or pre=printed language that would allow a testator to elect to use such a clause," the Court stated that:
"This unfortunate result stems not from this court's interpretation of Florida's probate law, but from the fact that Ms. Aldrich wrote her will using a commercially available form . . . which did not adequately address her specific needs – apparently without obtaining any legal assistance."
As the court noted, Ms. Aldrich's case wasn't really about Florida law, though the lack of a residuary clause or similar language in a California will would likely lead to the same result. Her story is just one example of the pitfalls of using a laptop instead of a lawyer for your estate planning needs. There are many more estate planning nuances that individuals fail to consider, are unaware of, and that may not be addressed in online forms. Remember, you can't call a lawyer to fix things after you're gone.
Meyer & Yee: Sacramento/Roseville Estate Planning Lawyers
At Meyer & Yee, we bring clarity and peace of mind to the often confusing area of estate planning. Dr. Meyer and our entire team will work closely with you to protect your interests, your family, and your life's work. If you have questions or require assistance with your estate planning, we provide responsive, accessible, and plain-spoken counsel. Please give us a call at (916) 599-7297 to discuss your issues and concerns. We look forward to the privilege of being your attorneys.