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Taking the Law Into Your Own Hands Can Prove Costly

We’ve all heard the adage, “You get what you pay for.”  When it comes to getting “do it yourself” legal material off of the internet vs. seeing an attorney, this may certainly apply.  The following is a cautionary tale that highlights potential problems that may arise.

Ms. Ann Adrich, living in Florida, decided to draft her own Will using a preprinted form rather than going to an attorney.  She scrupulously listed all of her existing assets and designated her sister, Mary Jane, as her primary beneficiary.  When Mary Jane passed away, Ann inherited significant assets from her estate.  So, upon her sister’s death, Ann amended her own Will with a handwritten codicil, designating her brother as beneficiary.

Unfortunately, there were some significant problems with Ann’s “do it yourself” approach.  Ann’s preprinted Will did not include a “residuary clause” that would have specifically addressed who should inherit any new assets that Ann accrued after preparing her Will.  And, the codicil that Ann hand-wrote, leaving all her worldly possessions to her brother, did not conform with state requirements, and, therefore, was not a valid “Will” or codicil under Florida law.

Upon Ann’s death, litigation ensued.  Her brother argued that Ann’s intent was for him to inherit all of her assets, including those that Mary Jane had left to Ann.  However, Ann’s nieces argued that, regardless of intent, the Will did not include the necessary residuary clause, and the codicil was invalid.  Therefore, the nieces argued, the assets that Ann had inherited from Mary Jane should not pass to Ann’s brother, but should pass via “intestacy” (a legal procedure whereby assets that are not addressed in a Will are passed down to heirs, according to the law of descent and distribution).

After extensive and expensive litigation, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of the nieces.  The key lesson was expressed by Florida Supreme Court Justice Babara Pariente who wrote:

“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.”  Obviously, the cost of drafting a will through the use of a pre-printed form is likely substantially lower than the cost of hiring a knowledgeable lawyer.  However, as illustrated by this case, the ultimate cost of utilizing such a form to draft one’s will has the potential to far surpass the cost of hiring a lawyer at the outset.  In a case such as this, which involved a substantial sum of money, the time, effort, and expense of extensive litigation undertaken in order to prove a testator’s true intent after the testator’s death can necessitate the expenditure of much more substantial amounts in attorney’s fees than was avoided during the testator’s life by the use of a pre-printed form.”

Getting Legal Help

Experienced Estate Planning Attorney Elga A. Goodman can assist you with all your estate planning needs, including preparing all the necessary documents.  Contact us today at 973-841-5111.

Posted in: Estate Planning, New York Estate Planning, Wills