Don’t let other people’s mistakes put you off preparing your own Will.

Every once in a while there is an unfortunate case of somebody making a mistake when attempting to prepare their own Will. A recent case in Florida has been reported, quite literally, thousands of times through different law blogs as a “cautionary tale” of how things can go badly wrong when you try to prepare your own Will. You can look up the case of “Aldrich v. Basile” and you will see about 100,000 results with headings like

“Case Illustrates Dangers of Executing a Will Without Legal Assistance”
“Do-It-Yourself Wills: Cheap Now, Expensive Later?”
“Why Preprinted or Online Legal Forms Are Not Advisable”

I’ll explain my position on this very sad situation by firstly summarizing exactly where Ms Aldrich went wrong. In an E-Z Will kit form she listed some specific assets to go to her sister and if the sister were to predecease her, the list of assets would go to her brother. Then a few years later her sister died, so she updated that Will with a handwritten note that stated;

This is an addendum to my will dated April 5, 2004. Since my sister Mary jean Eaton has passed away, I reiterate that all my worldly possessions pass to my brother James Michael Aldrich, 2250 S. Palmetto, S. Daytona FL 32119.

There were two issues; firstly her original Will only covered the list of assets, not everything else. However, even though the handwritten update covered “all my worldly possessions” it was only signed in the presence of one witness not two and so was not accepted by the courts.blank paper

With respect to the first error, this is unfortunately a limitation of blank form kits, and this is why we steer people away from them – It is easy to forget things. It is important to not confuse a blank form kit with a fully interactive service that guides you through the process and checks for errors. When a person makes a mistake with an E-Z Will kit form it is a warning bell for using this type of form, not for trying to prepare one’s own Will using interactive software. If you use a service like ours this mistake is absolutely impossible to make.

But I personally feel that the second error reflects badly on the Florida Supreme Court. In their ruling the judge stated that

Unfortunately, I surmise that, although this is the correct result under Florida’s probate law, this result does not effectuate Ms. Aldrich’s true intent. While we are unable to legally consider Ms. Aldrich’s unenforceable handwritten note that was found attached to her previously drafted will, this note clearly demonstrates that Ms. Aldrich’s true intent was to pass all of her “worldly possessions” to her brother, James Michael Aldrich

Thankfully an increasing number of jurisdictions have introduced laws that try to respect the intent of the testator and they will not allow true intent to be over-ruled by a technicality. In this case, everybody knows what Ms Aldrich meant, everybody knows what she wanted, but the lawyers and the courts successfully managed to throw this out. The court declared that Ms Aldrich had died without a Will and gave a share of the estate to her nieces according to intestate law.

The judge actually stated that she was deciding the case contrary to the testator’s “true intent”, Ms Aldrich did not want any of her estate to pass to her nieces, they were never mentioned in any of her documents. One legal blogger was very critical of the decision claiming that;

Apparently, the court wished to inflict post-mortem punishment on the testator for engaging in DIY estate planning….The court blamed the “unfortunate result” on the fact that Ann did not seek legal assistance in creating her estate plan. 

So now to the reaction and estate planning lawyers are collectively rubbing their hands with glee and providing all kinds of examples of why trying to prepare your own Will is a mistake. Like this one

A lot of times clients come in saying they want something very simple,” says Rubin. “But then you find out their daughter had a baby by artificial reproductive technology. If the definition of ‘child’ in your will isn’t up-to-date, you could disinherit your grandchild.

The claim is nonsense. This clearly does not happen “a lot of times” and perhaps the conclusion should be that if this situation does not apply to you, you can safely go the “do-it-yourself” route.

They then go on to say

These are the conditions each state requires for a will to be considered valid. The standard in Florida is two witnesses.“Every state has its own quirky rules,” cautions Rubin

Actually…it’s not that quirky, every single state requires two witnesses. Across the internet, the scaremongering goes on with countless obscure examples of how attempting to prepare one’s own Will is going to lead to trouble. As an aside, the vast majority of challenges are to Wills prepared by estate planning lawyers but we rarely see “a cautionary tale for what can happen if you use a lawyer to prepare your Will”.

The fallout of this unfortunate case leads me to the following recommendations;

Do not be scared off from preparing your own Will. It isn’t as complicated as some people want you to believe. If you have a complicated family situation then you need legal advice, but most people do not. From time-to-time there will be an article in the media about somebody who made a mistake with a Will kit. This does not mean that preparing your own Will is a bad idea. Over 65% of people do not have an up-to-date Will in place, and many of these are under the mistaken impression that you must use a lawyer to prepare a Will. You should take things into your own hands and make sure that your Will is in place.

Do not use a blank do-it-yourself Will kit, there is a very significant likelihood that you will make a mistake or not cover all situations that need to be covered. Blank forms have way too many spaces that have to be completely correctly. When you see a Will completed through our service you can appreciate how complicated the document can be, with various trust clauses and powers to the Executor. If you do not have a legal education you would not be able to create a well drafted Will using these kits.

Do not use a handwritten note to express your wishes; it opens your estate up to challenges and it may not fulfil the requirements of a Last Will and Testament or Codicil.

Do not use a Codicil to make an update to a Will. Just create a new Will. If you use an online service like ours, you can just login, make the change and print off a new Will. It’s easy.

I just wish that common sense would have prevailed and that the courts would have respected the final wishes of Ann Aldrich. It’s a real shame that they wouldn’t.

Tim Hewson is the President and Founder of the LegalWills group of companies. Offering online interactive estate planning services through LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk. Founded in 2001, these services have become market leaders helping hundreds of thousands of people prepare their important legal documents.

The cost of a Will – enter Walmart

In previous articles we have discussed the cost of a Will. How is it that we charge $34.95 or £24.95 when the exact same document created by a lawyer will cost anything up to $800 or £500? There are a variety of reasons for this; our costs are kept down because you are effectively writing the Will yourself, and the $800? well, that’s simply overcharging.Wal-mart

The line that is drawn between an online service like ours and going to a lawyer has now been blurred a little by two Canadian lawyers who have set up booths in Walmart. They are using software to create $99 Wills and they are trying to remove the intimidation factor out of Will writing by allowing you to simply walk in without an appointment and have your Will written for you. It’s a interesting approach because that’s exactly the same process by which the $800 Will is created; you provide some personal details and key decisions and the lawyer enters your details into some software and the Will is generated. In fact, this cut price approach is absolutely no different to any other lawyer, and the end result is no different to a Will written by any other lawyer, or a Will written using the service at LegalWills.ca. So why are they only charging $99? The Walmart lawyer explains

We don’t fault other lawyers. If we were doing two a week, we’d have to charge more

so let us understand this….the premium that somebody would pay to use a lawyer has no relationship with the quality of the end product, it’s simply because the lawyer has to charge more to sustain their business.

So what do other lawyers make of this; a well known legal blog said

While a Wal-Mart will may sound like a “good deal”, one-stop estate planning at Wal-Mart may prove to be problematic, should these wills be challenged at some point in the future. Only time will tell.

may prove problematic? what does that mean? These Wills are written by a law firm, why would they be problematic? My guess is that it would be absolutely no more problematic than any other Will that has been written either using a lawyer or a service like the one at LegalWills.ca. It sounds to me like some vague scaremongering.

There are however, a few inherent problems with a “walk-in” Will writing service. Most people do not know all of the answers to all of the questions without a little consideration. For example, naming an alternate Executor, bequests to charities, guardians for children. Some of these things take some real thought and are not answers that you would like to give on the fly.

The final question remains; is $99 a fair price? Well you could pay $99 and save hundreds of dollars, or you could just put your details into the software yourself and save yourself even more. LegalWills.ca allows you to do exactly that for $34.95, from the comfort of your own home. You can take as long as you like to get things precisely the way you want them to, and most importantly you can make updates whenever the need arises, by simply logging into your account, making the change and printing off a new Will. USLegalWills.com offers the same for $34.95 and LegalWills.co.uk is available for UK customers at £24.95.

The options are quite clear. The final document is exactly the same but you can pay a lawyer $600 to enter your information into the Will making software (they have an office to maintain), you can pay Walmart $99 to enter your information into the Will making software (they do thousands, so they can afford to be cheaper), or you can do it yourself for $34.95.

The scourge of the online Will kit

Here’s the problem; everybody needs a Will, but lawyers are too expensive and inconvenient. As a result 65 percent of people don’t have a Will. To address this issue, countless “downloadable Will forms” proliferate across the internet. People use these forms and their loved ones end up with a mountain of trouble.

Let’s explore the evidence;

Are lawyers really too expensive or inconvenient? According to the customers who come to LegalWills, yes, absolutely. They are being quoted anything up to $1200 or £800 for a simple Last Will and Testament, but more commonly it is in the region of $600 or £400. The more significant problem is that updates are being charged anything up to $100 or £50 per change. There is also a gap between what lawyers think people can pay, and what people are prepared to pay. I read this recently on a legal blog, written by an estate planning lawyer

At least once a week I get a call from a potential client. The question is always the same: “How much does X document cost?” This is always a perplexing question. Usually the answer is “I don’t know.”

I know of an attorney who agrees to quote the client a price over the phone if they can answer one simple question: “What color tie am I wearing today?” …This lawyer knows that people will protest- “how can I know what color tie you are wearing if I am not there?” The lawyer then points out (if the client has not gotten it already) that both questions are similar.

So here’s the disconnect; the lawyer thinks he is clever and the client is a bit dim. The prospective client on the other hand wants to know whether they should include in their household budget some money to prepare a Last Will and Testament. In order to do this, they need to get a feel for how much it will cost. I cannot think of any other situation where you would blindly procure a service, hand over your wallet and ask the service provider to charge you whatever they want (veterinarians and dentists aside!).

So most people end up without a Last Will and Testament in place, and of those that do, most are not kept up to date. So we find service providers offering a “downloadable Will” sometimes free of charge. I saw a new one just last week – I have embedded a screenshot of the body of it here. Last Will and TestamentThey have tried to convey some authenticity with some calligraphy at the top and an impenetrable legal sentence to kick off the document

 

I JOHN DOE KNOW ALL PERSONS BY THESE PRESENTS:

 

But the meat of the document comes in article IV, where you are given space to explain how you would like your estate to be distributed. Personally, I feel that this document should be illegal; it is preying on people who don’t want to pay for legal advice and who are trusting this company to provide them with a legally binding document. But it is nothing short of impossible to complete a satisfactory Will using a blank page like this. You need to create alternate plans, trusts, Executor powers, residual plans and without these you end up with an estate like Ann Aldrich who used E-Z Legal Forms to prepare her Will. She listed out her possessions and instructed all of these things to go to her beneficiary. Unfortunately she didn’t explain what should happen to everything else. The result was a family battle over her estate and a judgement that included this warning “I therefore take this opportunity to highlight a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms”

Fortunately, there is a very large middle ground between expensive lawyers and dangerous blank forms, and this is being filled by interactive services like the ones at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com. These services guide you through the process with a series of questions, and then verifies that you have covered all scenarios. It only allows you to do things that your jurisdiction permits, and double checks for things like minor children having guardians and trusts set up appropriately. Clearly some people still need expensive legal advice and custom clauses to be written, but services like this work for the vast majority. So much so, that when a recent study from Oxford University listed the most likely jobs to be replaced by technology, paralegals were 4th on the list with a 94% probability of being replaced by software. Most people who have a Will written by a legal professional have their information typed into software and their Will generated from templates (the staff in the office usually do it), but online services like LegalWills are granting access to those tools directly to the consumer.

People are not likely to use a lawyer who refuses to tell them how much they will charge. But we are hoping that we can steer people away from blank form kits.

 

You may not need legal advice to write a Will

I received an interesting comment from somebody recently;

“I learned of a woman who did a Will through this process but was not advised about how to care for her disabled child when she passed. No Hensen trust was set up for the child. In my personal and professional experience, a person should receive legal advice when preparing a Will”

This comment actually makes no sense. We would agree that this particular person should have received legal advice in preparing their Will. In fact, one of the questions we ask up-front is whether there are special needs children to care for within the Will. If there are, then we would explain to that individual that our service is not a good fit for them, and that they should indeed seek legal advice. But does that therefore mean that everybody needs legal advice to write a Will? Of course not. The vast majority of the users of our service need a Will that leaves everything to their spouse, and if something were to happen to both parents, then the estate would be distributed between their children. Guardians should be named, and possibly trusts for minor beneficiaries. But a Will covering this situation is straightforward and can be written using our service in about 20 minutes. In fact, if you went to a legal professional to prepare this type of Will, you would be paying way more than you need to.

Of course there are are complicated family situations that would benefit from legal advice, but scaremongering everybody into paying for a lawyer leaves us with a situation where about 70% of adults do not have an up-to-date Will. The vast majority of those people could quite easily use our service to fit their estate planning needs.

But the counter argument would be “ahhh, but how does a person know if they need legal advice or not?” At LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com we provide a list of circumstances under which we recommend that a person seek legal advice and not use our service. These include; planning to disinherit a spouse, a history of mental illness, children with special needs or if you think that there may be a challenge to the Will, or have any doubts whatsoever about your situation.

Our advice would be that although you may have heard of somebody needing legal advice to prepare their Will, you shouldn’t feel that this situation applies to you. And you shouldn’t let the thought of booking an appointment with a lawyer put you off preparing your Will. You can have a Will in your hands in about 20 minutes at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com

Six ways the law is a hundred years out of date

DPRI-1-1706-M1_fullwilllargeAs the owner of a company that allows people to prepare their own Will – online, at any time, there are many services we would love to add, but are continually stymied by a law that fundamentally hasn’t changed in centuries. We live in a smartphone, biometric, social World which is entirely ignored by our legal system. Which would be fine if our current system worked, but it is horribly inefficient and open to fraud and exploitation. Given the gaping holes in the way our Wills law works today you would think that lawmakers would be jumping all over new technology to make the system work. Here are just a few ways that the head-in-the-sand approach comes up short;

1. A Will must be printed on a piece of paper;
Today we have video, digital assets, countless online social activity and the only way a Will can be valid is if it’s printed on a piece of paper. an “innovation” that’s been around for a couple of thousand years. The most obvious shortcomings of paper are that it burns easily, doesn’t stand up to flooding very well, is very difficult to find, not secure, easy to forge, and is not easy to update. The single most common question we receive at LegalWills is “my Dad has just passed away, and I know he had a Will, how can we find it?”. It would be relatively easy for us to have an online repository of Wills encrypted with digital signatures and made available to Executors exactly when they are required. Unfortunately the law doesn’t allow for this and currently the only legal document is on a piece of paper – lost, burned, or blown away in a hurricane.

2. A Will must be signed by a handwritten signature
This is perhaps the most ridiculous shortcoming of our existing laws. A scrawled signature is currently the only way of proving that a Will belongs to the person making the Will. Which leads to cases like this , where somebody has to call in a “handwriting expert” to validate the Will because “There are four signatures on it and none of them actually look like any of his signatures.” We sign into our phones with fingerprints, and biometric data. My smartphone uses face recognition to log me in. I can buy a door handle on Amazon that uses “subdermal fingerprint scan technology”, yet according to the law, my entire estate is protected by a chicken scratch signature. You then end up with multi-million dollar properties being contested because claimants “maintain that it is fake and <the testator> never made one”. Or people like this former police officer who “has admitted fraud over a will said to belong to his dead father.” His Dad didn’t have a Will, his son typed one up and passed it off as his Dad’s. Granted, he was caught, but for every one of these there are thousands of fraudulent Wills being presented as originals.

3. The inclusion of digital assets
Lawyers are starting to acknowledge the importance of digital assets, but have yet to come up with a secure, convenient way to tie these together with a printed Will. Generally speaking it’s a really bad idea to include your Facebook account information in your Will (Wills are public record once you pass away), but online accounts can have significant value. Domain names are still sold for tens of thousands of dollars. PaddyPower, PayPal, Bitcoin, WordPress accounts can be worth a lot of money. And of course, families may end up fighting over Flickr, Picassa, Facebook and iTunes accounts, so they should really have a named beneficiary.

4. Global assets
We live in a very mobile World and people hold assets in multiple jurisdictions, and indeed in some cases may not even know which jurisdiction the assets are held in. If I own $500k in Bitcoin currency, is this subject to inheritance taxes of any country? what if I live part of the year in the UK, part of the year in Dubai, and have a house in Florida and have a PartyPoker account? I recently read this article about differences between English and Scottish law which explains “The EU has very recently introduced new rules to help clarify the position in complicated situations, where the law of two or more EU countries could apply. From August 2015, most EU citizens will be able to choose whether the law applicable …should be under the rules determined by the country of their residence or the country of their nationality. However, the United Kingdom has chosen to opt out of these regulations.” In other words the UK has opted out of a law that will come into effect in two years time that will solve a 50 year old problem. Good luck finding resolution to the issues of today’s digital assets.

5. The cost of a lawyer
Lawyers continue to overcharge for their services. In most cases a lawyer will have a client complete a blank form, put the information into some software and generate a standard boilerplate Will. And then charge $600 or £400. Not in every case of course, but a lawyer should be able to say to a client “you know, that was a really simple Will, let’s call it $25” but it won’t happen. We’ve had people come to us having been quoted $1,200 for a Will. It’s just out of touch with reality, especially as Wills should be reviewed at least annually and updated regularly.

6. Using the services of a lawyer
We can automate and “app-ify” many things today. Online and smartphone applications are breaking new ground daily and it not difficult to conclude that if Intuit can build TurboTax for business, it is not much of a stretch to address everybody’s estate planning needs with self service tools. At LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com we provide a service that works for about eighty percent of people, and we direct people to legal professionals for anything complicated. But it is well within our technical capabilities to provide an online tool that works for 99.9% of the population, probably more effectively that the legal profession. A Will is something that everybody should have, access to a lawyer should not be a roadblock to preparing a Will.

What exactly is a Last Will and Testament?

One of the most common questions we receive at LegalWills is “do I need a lawyer’s stamp or something to make my Will a legal document?”. The easiest way to answer this question is to look at the legal statutes that define exactly what makes a random document an actual Will. Let’s take one from each country in which LegalWills operates;

In Ontario; the Succession Law Reform Act requires that “A will is valid only when it is in writing”. It then goes on to say a will is not valid unless,

(a) at its end it is signed by the testator or by some other person in his or her presence and by his or her direction;
(b) the testator makes or acknowledges the signature in the presence of two or more attesting witnesses present at the same time; and
(c) two or more of the attesting witnesses subscribe the will in the presence of the testator.

There are a few subtle qualifiers to this, for example, a member of the forces on active service is not required to have two witnesses, nor does a Will that is written entirely in one’s own handwriting – which is a useful provision for people stuck under a rock, but not advisable for anybody else. There is also some restriction on who can serve as a witness in that they must have no vested interested in the contents of the Will. There is no mention in the law of requiring the services of a lawyer, or notary to make the document legal. The law however does not allow for video Wills, a Will that is sung, or any other modern digital interpretations.

The UK Wills Act not surprisingly, has very similar provisions and the signing requirement are almost identical. But more jurisdictions are now accepting “intent” rather than strict compliance with the law. In California they have a “harmless error” provision that states

The will shall be treated as if it was executed in compliance with that paragraph if the proponent of the will establishes by clear and convincing evidence that, at the time the testator signed the will, the testator intended the will to constitute the testator’s will.

More a more jurisdictions are changing their laws to state that the intent of the Will-maker supersedes the formal requirements of a Will. For example, in BC recently section 80 was updated to include;

If a will was not executed in compliance with paragraph (1), the will shall be treated as if it was executed in compliance with that paragraph if the proponent of the will establishes by clear and convincing evidence that, at the time the testator signed the will, the testator intended the will to constitute the testator’s will.

What does all of this mean? the implications can be seen in this recent news article from Australia. “A Will typed into an iPhone ‘Notes’ app has been declared legally valid by the Supreme Court in Brisbane in a landmark legal ruling. In what may be a legal first in Queensland, and possibly Australia, the Supreme Court ruled that the will typed into the smartphone but not written out or signed would stand.” The article goes on to say “Although the will was not witnessed the court found it had been created on the iPhone by the man with the clear intention of it being legal and operative”.

Of course, we wouldn’t recommend testing the limits of the legal system to see which forms of Will would be acceptable, however, it is clear that there is no need to be intimated by the process of writing your Will. Services like those at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com offer a structured service to prepare your own Will. It relies on established legal precedents to create a Will identical to one prepared by a lawyer. We wouldn’t recommend writing a Will on a post-it note, but there is nothing to be afraid of when using a service like ours to prepare your own Will.

The “armchair principle” in Will writing

I recently read this article from the BBC talking about the importance of being clear in one’s Will. Ambiguous wording in a recent Will resulted in a £500k legacy going to the government. The article also took the opportunity to try and draw a line between this situation and the dangers of preparing one’s own Will. There wasn’t any indication that the mis-directed bequest came from a do-it-yourself Will, but these unfortunate situations somehow are used as examples of why you need to pay high fees for a legal professional.

Specifically, and it is important to be specific, this article warns people with;

Strict rules governing the way a will is made and executed mean that errors can be made very easily which can invalidate it. These errors often include not signing the will or having it witnessed correctly.

This does seem to be the most used scare tactic; pay for a legal professional or your Will may be invalidated. Let me shed some light on these strict rules; the Will must be signed at the end, and the signing needs to be witnessed by two people with no vested interest in the contents of the Will. This includes beneficiaries or the spouse of a beneficiary. It is also a good idea for you and your witnesses to initial each page. There. That’s it.

This article also makes reference to “the armchair principle” that exists in the UK, and it being adopted by many Canadian Provinces. In essence it means that your Will is not going to be invalidated because of a technical error. Every effort will be made to understand the intention of the person writing the Will. For example if somebody wrote “my sitter, Jane Doe”, but meant “my sister, Jane Doe”, the chances are the courts will say “he doesn’t have a sitter, it wouldn’t make sense for him to leave his entire estate to his sitter, he obviously means his sister, the one named Jane Doe”.

It is important to be clear and unambiguous with instructions. Obviously it doesn’t make sense to leave your entire estate to “my friend John” without being specific about who you mean, but with a little common sense, anybody can prepare their own Will.

Services like those at LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk take care of the legal clauses and jargon, and also protect against doing anything you can’t legally do in your jurisdiction. There is really no need to be fearful of preparing your own Will, and these “strict rules” that the lawyers warn us of, are actually very simple.