When an attorney writes about the perils of the do-it-yourself world it can definitely sound self-serving and to a certain extent maybe it is. But, the reality is preparing your own legal documents is dangerous work. When someone sells a product that has potential dangers, like a lawn mower, they are required to put a label in place that clearly warns of the risk. Yet looking at the websites of those peddling their version of the do-it-yourself trust there is no clearly marked label warning of potential risk. At best they have in very fine print (likely written by their lawyers) and way out of sight, a disclaimer that their directions are not a substitute for legal advice. So true!
I bring this up because of a recent case from the Florida Supreme Court involving the estate of Ann Aldrich. According to the opinion, Ms. Aldrich wrote her will on an “E–Z Legal Form.” On the form she directed that certain named items be distributed to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton. She then wrote: “If Mary Jane Eaton dies before I do, I leave all listed to James Michael Aldrich, 2250 S. Palmetto 114 S Daytona FL 32119.” James Aldrich was Ms. Aldrich’s brother. There was no other language distributing other properties not specifically identified. Eaton died first and left cash and land to Ms. Aldrich. Subsequently, Ms. Aldrich attached a handwritten note to the will stating that she wanted all of her earthly possessions to go to her brother James Aldrich.
Obviously a lawsuit ensued over the property not identified in the will and this lawsuit made it all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. Based on the requirements of Florida law the Court held that the written note was not a valid amendment. The Court further held that the will as drafted did not cover the property not identified in the document.
It appears a will can be purchased from this company’s website for just a few dollars. Ms. Aldrich likely saved several hundred dollars. Yet, given the length and cost of litigation such as this it probably cost her estate tens of thousands of dollars. Not really the best economic decision after all. It reminds of the old Fram oil filter commercials: “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”
In a concurring opinion one of the Justices had this to say:
“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.
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.”
Preparing your estate plan is a serious undertaking. Using the right words in the right places is vital. Contrary to the claims of some that their document is valid in all 50 states, the laws interpreting wills vary from state to state which will lead to differing results. So when you are tempted to engage in do-it-yourself legal work remember the cautionary tale of Ms. Aldrich and envision the following: “WARNING! IF NOT USED PROPERLY THIS PRODUCT MAY RESULT IN SERIOUS INJURY TO YOUR FAMILY. CONSEQUENCES MAY INCLUDE ANGER, ANIMOSITY, SEVERED RELATIONS AND LOSS OF SUBSTANTIAL AMOUNTS OF YOUR FAMILY’S WEALTH TO TAXES AND LEGAL FEES.