For do-it-yourself types, the internet is the greatest tool ever invented. Need to put up some drywall, fix a transmission, or build a treehouse for your child? A few clicks will get you tips, videos, and step-by-step instructions to help you complete tasks that you may have hired a professional to tackle back in the pre-web dark ages.
So why can’t you take the same approach with your estate plan? After all, the web is chock full of sites that offer do-it-yourself legal forms, especially wills and other estate planning documents. For a few bucks, you can download a preprinted form, fill in the blanks and sign on the dotted line, and have a shiny new estate plan without ever having to meet with (or pay for) a lawyer.
Sounds easy, but easy is not the same as good – or effective. If you try to use your laptop as your lawyer for estate planning, you could wind up with results that you may not intend and cost your loved ones the very conflict, stress, and expense you were trying to avoid by planning ahead.
The late Ann Aldrich of Keystone Heights, Florida, provides a perfect example. In a notable case described on the AARP Blog, she used a downloaded “E-Z Legal Form” for her estate plan, leading to disastrous consequences even for her relatively simple estate.
Ms. Aldrich didn’t have a lot of assets – a home, the possessions inside, a car, life insurance, a bank account. So she figured that she could use an online “E-Z Legal Form” to prepare her will. She specifically listed all of her assets in the form, and directed that all of her property be left to her sister. If her sister died first, she provided that her estate would go to her brother.
Aldrich’s sister did, in fact, die first and left her assets to Aldrich. But the form will Aldrich prepared did not contain what is known as a “residuary clause” which addresses what was supposed to happen to any property Aldrich acquired after she executed her will.
After Aldrich died, her brother became the personal representative of the estate and claimed that he should get her entire estate based on the “E-Z Legal Form” will. However, Aldrich’s two nieces argued that since the will did not address the assets Aldrich inherited from her sister, they should receive those assets under Florida’s intestacy laws.
The Form “Did Not Adequately Address Her Specific Needs”
The family squabble over Aldrich’s estate made it all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court decision in favor of the nieces. The Court found that the lack of a residuary clause meant that any property acquired by Aldrich after she executed the document would be distributed under the laws of intestate succession.
The Court acknowledged that while it may have been Aldrich’s desire to have all of her property at the time of her death pass to her brother just like the assets she specified in her will, the form’s deficiencies could not be overcome. It then squarely blamed Aldrich’s use of the form for a result that likely did not comport with her wishes:
“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.”
A Michigan court would likely have reached the same conclusion as the Florida court. But a lack of a residuary clause is just one of many potential omissions and deficiencies with an online will, and the more complex your estate, the more likely it is that your online estate plan won’t be worth the paper you ultimately print it on.
When that happens, the dollars you are trying to save with a do-it-yourself estate plan can look like small change compared to the costs in legal fees, family disputes, and lengthy litigation arising from an inadequate or unenforceable estate plan.
An experienced estate planning lawyer will understand you and your goals and design a personalized plan that will cover all the bases and accomplish exactly what you want.
If you have questions about online estate planning and want to learn more about why you should meet with a lawyer instead of looking to your laptop, please contact one of the attorneys in Kreis Enderle’s Estate Planning practice group today.