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.
Aside

Keeping up to date with Estate Planning laws

This week in Canada, the Province of British Columbia enacted new laws for the preparation of Wills. The changes were described by some as “sweeping” and the “most significant update in the law for decades”. In reality though, there were only two meaningful changes for service providers like us. Firstly, it lowered the eligible age for preparing a Will from 19 to 16, and secondly it changed the law that automatically revoked a Will on marriage. I’m not quite sure why there was pressure to lower the eligible age; I know that the number of teenagers preparing a Will using our service is very, very low (we’ve had one this year according to our statistics). But the revoking on marriage certainly makes sense. Tragic as it may be, newlyweds can be involved in fatal accidents, and it doesn’t seem right that their Will would be voided because there hadn’t been an opportunity to make the update.Changes Coming

Many lawyers will cite changes in the law as a reason to avoid preparing your own Will, but of course, our services are always kept up-to-date. It does however make for an interesting challenge. Our service covers every State in the US (except Louisiana), every Province in Canada (except Quebec) and the UK (England and Wales only). This gives us over 60 different jurisdictions that have to be monitored. Most of the changes to estate planning law impact people who have not made a Will, and also the Execution of that Will. For example, the new BC law encourages the courts to try and figure out what the testator really meant in their Will, rather than have the estate tripped up on a technicality. The distribution of the estate for somebody who doesn’t have a Will was also changed in the new law, but we would hope that nobody would leave their estate distribution to the vagaries of intestate law and take the decisions into their own hands.

But it means that if you pick up a blank form kit in BC, there is a chance that it may now be invalidated because of the new law. Certainly, any help text associated with that kit would most likely be wrong. You also have to be very careful when using an online service and maybe even request information from the service provider on when they most recently had an update to the service. At LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk we are diligent about monitoring estate planning laws across all jurisdictions, but other services may have gone online years ago and never been touched.

However, don’t let law changes scare you away from preparing your own Will, certainly at LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk you can be assured that any change in the law will be reflected in our services on the day of the change.

 

 

The funnel to a successful estate plan

It’s an unfortunate reality that very few people end up with a perfectly executed estate plan. In an ideal world we would see every person’s assets being passed to the next generation in a way that represents their wishes, in reality there are a number of key steps to this process and consequently too many points of failure. This post will explore those steps and what we are doing at LegalWills to try and improve the numbers;

1. 65% of people don’t write their Will

This is of course the most significant leak in the funnel. The vast majority of people never create a Will because it is too expensive or inconvenient. As a result, people procrastinate thinking that they can get to it some time next year. Alternatively they wait until there is stability in their life because they think that the writing of a Will is something that they only want to do once in their life. We often hear from people who say “I will be getting married next Summer, should I hold off writing a Will until then?”. On the one hand, it is true that getting married will invalidate the Will in most jurisdictions, but there is never a time that a person should be without a Will. So we recommend that the Will is written today, updated when the person gets married, and updated every time they experience another major life event. Which brings us to the second issue – Funnel

2. Most Wills are not kept up to date

When a person visits a lawyer to prepare their Will, they can pay a significant amount of money and with that, they would expect the document to last quite some time, if not a lifetime. The reality of course is that the document can be out of date by the time the person gets home. There are many high profile examples of Wills not being updated with dire consequences; new children not being included, new partners, Executors who are no longer fit to serve. In fact, most celebrity Will disputes are caused by a Will not being updated to reflect new circumstances. A Will should not only be updated when there are changes in personal circumstances, but also when a life event happens to anybody named in the Will. It may be that the personal guardians for your children have moved across the country, had triplets of their own or for whatever reason are simply no longer the best choice. Many times we hear from people who explain that “I do have a Will but it was written twenty years ago, before we had children”, in which case, although they are one of the 35% with a Will, it is all but useless.

3. Many Wills are never found

The single most common question we receive at LegalWills for non-customers is “my father had a Will, but we don’t know where it is, how can we find it?” and the short answer is, you can’t. It doesn’t matter whether the Will is stored at home, or with a lawyer’s office, if the family and loved ones are not told where the Will is located, they have very little chance of finding it. We also hear from customers who aren’t sure how to revoke an old Will and explain that “I had a Will written 15 years ago with a lawyer, but I was living in a different city then, I’m not even sure that the lawyer is still there, how do I cancel this Will”. In this situation the testator can’t even find their Will, so there is no chance of a family being able to find it. So although this person is technically one of the 35% with a Will, it hasn’t been updated and it has no chance of being found.

4. The Executor has no idea how many assets there are

We are now left with less than 10% of the population; they have written their Will, they updated it regularly to reflect changes in their circumstances, their family and loved ones are able to find the Will when they need it, but now the Executor will have to find the assets. But there is no list of assets kept with the Will; so infrequently used bank accounts, online assets, dormant savings accounts, stock purchases, or even cash under the floorboards will never be found and never make their way to the beneficiaries. It is never a good idea to include a complete list of assets in the Will itself; they change frequently and you wouldn’t want to have to update the document every time a new account is opened, but the Executor needs to know when their job is complete.

At LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com we have tried to solve these issues. Firstly, we created a service that allows you to write your legal Will for $34.95 or £24.95 from the comfort of your home. We then allow you to update the document by simply logging into your account, making the change, and printing a new document. We then allow you to create messages that can be distributed to key people after you have passed away, and this can include instructions for locating your Will. Finally we have teamed up with My Life Locker™; the Ultimate Life Organizational System. Using this service you are able to maintain a file of your personal assets which can then be accessed by designated keyholders™ only at the appropriate time. This ensures that all of your assets make their way to your beneficiaries.

5 good reasons to write your own Will rather than see a lawyer

I need to preface this article by clarifying what I mean by writing your own Will. I do not mean sitting down with a blank piece of paper, and I do not mean using a blank form kit that you may buy from a bookstore. Either of these approaches is an absolutely terrible idea. No, I’m talking about using interactive software like the tools offered at LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk. These services protect you from making the mistakes inherent within a blank form kit – like writing something in your Will that is not permitted by law, or not covering all possible situations. In fact, these services are now so good, that they are not just an option “if you cannot afford a lawyer”. They actually have some significant benefits over using a legal professional to prepare your Will.

You will actually get it done
Over 60% of adults don’t have a Will in place, and many complain that it’s the effort of booking an appointment with a lawyer that presents the most significant barrier. Many of our customers use LegalWills because they have procrastinated and they are leaving on a trip, or going into surgery and explain to us that they need “something” in place, and they’ll then get a “proper Will” written some time in the future. One of two things then happens; they either don’t ever get around to preparing the “proper one”, or alternatively, they eventually make an appointment with their lawyer, pay $600 and then find that their new Will is the same as the one prepared at LegalWills. When I say “the same”, I mean identical, word-for-word, exactly the same. The lawyer uses the same software that we use, so the two documents are indistinguishable from each other.

Future-proofing
Another significant barrier to preparing a Will is the notion that you would only write it once in your lifetime. After all, for $600 you’d expect it to be good for at least a few years. Unfortunately though, a Will lasts as long as there are no changes in the circumstance of anybody named in the Will. If your alternate Executor moves abroad, it’s probably a good idea to update your Will. Or supposing a charity comes into your life and you wish to recognize them in a bequest, you may want to update your Will. Unfortunately, with a lawyer it means booking another appointment and paying another $600 each time. With LegalWills you simply login, make the change and print out a new Will. It takes 10 minutes and costs nothing.

Educational
You may be the type of person who actually wants to learn about something as important as your Will. Unfortunately most lawyers do not have the time or inclination to step you through every clause in your Will and explain to you the implications of each sentence. Using a service like the one offered at LegalWills you are able to create your Will at your own pace and read as much or as little as you need to in order to educate yourself. Every page and every decision comes with accompanying help text so you will actually understand your Will and the decisions that were made to create your document. Most people who use our service actually feel empowered after preparing their own Will and completely understand the contents.

Private
There may be details to be included in your Will that you may not be willing to share. You may not feel comfortable telling a lawyer that you would like to leave your old school tie to your nephew and a long list of other personal memorabilia. There may be an organization that means a lot to you that you may not wish to share even with a lawyer. Using our service you get to choose exactly what is included in your Will and you needn’t discuss it with anybody if you don’t want to. You can make an update at any time without needing to explain to anybody the trigger for that update. It is truly your own private and personal document.

Affordable
With all of these advantages you’d almost think that the services at LegalWills would be at least as expensive as going to see a lawyer. But ultimately you are preparing your own documents, and you are not receiving legal advice from us. In North America you can prepare your Will at LegalWills.ca and USLegalWills.com for $34.95, at LegalWills.co.uk it costs £24.95.

Preparing your own document using our services is not an option for people who “can’t afford” legal fees. It is an educated choice for people who need to prepare a Will, who want to make updates whenever they need to, who want to learn a little more about the process, and who protect their privacy. Yes, it’s more affordable, and yes, the final document is identical, but there is so much more that comes with a service like ours.

The difficulties facing an estate administrator

We have written posts in the past about the importance of choosing the right person as Executor of your estate, and discussed the responsibilities that come with this position. There are two specific challenges that face an estate administrator that are constantly brought to our attention at LegalWills.

The first is locating the Will. Almost every day we receive an email from somebody who is looking for a person’s Will. Somebody has died, they told everybody that they have a Will, but nobody can find it. We have discussed this previously and the most important piece of advice is to let your Executor know where your Will is stored. Where you store the document is a personal preference and there are pros and cons to every decision, but if your Executor doesn’t know where it is, there is little chance of your wishes ever being respected.

Once the Executor has found the Will, they are then granted the powers from the courts to administer the estate and this is where the work really starts. The Executor has to gather up all of the assets in the estate – but how will they know where all of the assets are held? Often a Will simply states that “my entire estate is to be shared in the following way; one third to person A, one third to person B….etc” How does the Executor know where to find every bank account, every insurance policy, every investment, every stock portfolio, or even that bundle under the floorboards! How does the Executor even know when everything has been identified.

The scope of this issue was brought into focus last week when Citibank created a 16 page supplement in the New York Daily News. The title read “The following persons appear from our records to be entitled to unclaimed property consisting of cash amounts of fifty dollars or more…”. I haven’t counted, but there appear to be thousands of names including the philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor who died in 2007.

A significant proportion of these thousands of abandoned accounts should have been part of an estate, but the estate administrator had no idea that they existed. This list is for Citibank in New York, and it is reasonable to assume that every bank in every country has a similar list. This amounts to billions of dollars, pounds and euros held by banks, unbeknownst to the estate executors.

Of course, it doesn’t make sense to list every account in one’s Will; it would mean updating your Will every time a bank account was changed, or a stock portfolio was cashed out. At LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk we encourage everybody to complete a form that allows them to itemize their personal assets as well as list important people to contact. This document does not have the same legal standing and does not need to be signed and witnessed; it can be updated any time an asset changes. It can then be stored with the Will so that the Executor has a complete inventory of assets at the appropriate time.

In our digital age of PayPal accounts, domain name purchases, online gambling accounts, blog revenues and other digital assets, it is more important than ever to communicate to your Executor exactly where your assets are held. Many people do not even know the true extent of their spouse’s accounts, and without a list stored with the Will, an Executor would never even know that they had missed an important or valuable asset.

Some quick tips ahead of preparing your Will

We thought it would be useful to give a few tips for anybody contemplating using one of the services offered at LegalWills. We tell people that you can create a Will in around 20 minutes, but there are a few simple things that you can do to make the process smoother.

1. Don’t be intimidated. You are simply describing how you would like your estate to be distributed if you were to pass away. In most cases this is a very simple process and you do not need to have any legal knowledge to be able to use our service.

2. Do not procrastinate. It seems that many people wait for that perfect time in their life to prepare a Will, not realizing that a Will can be updated at any time. It is more important to have a Will in place that may need to be changed  in a few weeks or months rather than wait until that perfect moment when your life isn’t going to change. Things will happen either to you or to somebody included in your Will and there is a very high likelihood that your Will is going to need to be changed at some point in the future. Write the Will now, and update it when something happens in your life.

3. Think about key appointments. There are two important appointments to be made in a Will. Firstly, you will name an Executor (and an alternate Executor if your first choice is unable to serve). This person will have responsibility to carry out the instructions in the Will. We have described in previous articles how important this appointment is, and talked about the skills and characteristics that need to be possessed by your Executor. Secondly, you may also need to name a guardian for any minor children that you have. Again, we have described some of the considerations that you may think about in naming this person, but it is an appointment that should be made after careful thought.

We also recommend that the appointment of Executor and Guardian should not come as a surprise to somebody. You should discuss these appointments ahead of time with your chosen individuals and make sure that they are prepared to take on the roles.

4. Think about the distribution of your property. This is the why most people write their Last Will and Testament, and it is a good idea to think about this ahead of time. The people who have influenced your life, organizations that you may wish to recognize in your Will, family members, friends. And also think about the assets and possessions that make up your estate and consider how they should best be distributed. Remember of course that the Will can be updated, so if a person or organization makes a profound impression on your life, you can always update your Will to reflect this.

After you have prepared your Will you can add an inventory of assets that can be stored with your Will. At LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com we have a document specifically to assist your Executor that should be stored with your Will. It helps you to list your personal details and assets including important contact numbers and financial account information. This information typically should not appear in the Will itself as this would require a new Will to be signed and witnessed every time a bank account was changed, but it is an important document that should be stored with the Will.

Once you are clear on the key appointments and the distribution of your property, you are in a great position to start preparing your Will. There is really no need to postpone the task and you really can have your legal Last Will and Testament in your hands in 20 minutes. There is certainly no need to feel intimidated; it is your document, expressing your wishes.

When should you update your Last Will and Testament?

It’s a common statistic that 65-70% of adults have not written their Will, however, one of the lesser reported stats is that the majority of the Wills that are in place, are out-of-date and should have been revised. The difficulty of course is that finding the time and money to create a Will in the first place can be prohibitive, so booking an appointment and paying the same professional fees again to make a change to that Will is out of reach for most people.

33834437 – last will and testament

Unfortunately, when you create a Will with a lawyer or solicitor you really have no idea how long that Will is going to last. By the time you get home from the lawyer’s office, your Will could be out of date. There’s a standard set of reasons for updating your Will that you’ll find on many lawyers’ websites. These include obvious things like a change in marital status, birth of a new child or the death of a family member or beneficiary. Clearly, updating a Will immediately having a child may not be at the forefront of your mind, and sadly we do see countless examples of parents of young children not getting around to writing a new Will immediately after a child is born.

In reality though, the need to update a Will is more nuanced than that. You not only have to look at changes to your own situation, but also any changes in circumstance of anybody, or anything, mentioned in your Will. So, here’s a little test, which of these situations might prompt an update to your Will?

  • The person that you have named as your Executor has been convicted of a crime and is serving time in prison.
  • The person that you have named as personal guardian for your children has had triplets of their own
  • You have purchased a new summer property
  • Your daughter has got married
  • Your son is proving to be extremely irresponsible with his money
  • Your alternate Executor has died
  • You have sold your house
  • Your Executor has changed their name

I think for most of these examples, the recommendation would be to update your Will, but when you are working with a legal professional, it may seem an expensive and inconvenient proposition to book an appointment to make a relatively trivial change. This is why many people are turning to online services like the ones at LegalWills.ca , LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com. These services allow you to set up an account, from which you can update your Will whenever you need to. You then make the change, print the new document and sign it in the presence of two witnesses to create a new legal Last Will and Testament.

Some people update their Will every few months based on their interactions with the people around them; a dinner party gone wrong, a snubbed invitation, an unwelcome comment about an inheritance. You are certainly free to update your Will whenever you wish, but going through this exercise every time a beneficiary falls in and out of favour will not necessarily result in your estate plan reflecting your final wishes. It may make more sense to update your Will after a change in circumstance rather than a change in heart.

The most important message is that an outdated Will can be worse than no Will at all. You should double check your Will whenever there is a significant event for anybody mentioned in the document and make any required changes. At a bear minimum you should read through your Will once a year to confirm that it still reflects your wishes and that your instructions can still be carried out.