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.

New lessons from the famous – how to make a mess of a Will

We have seen many examples of famous people making a mess of their estate planning. In this blog we have described the situation of Stieg Larsson who failed to keep his Will up-to-date and also underestimated how much his estate would be worth. We also talked about  Anna Nicole Smith who didn’t update her Will after her child was born. Today we are going to highlight a very frequent mistake with the help of Gary Coleman who died over two years ago. Why now? because just last week a judgement was made on his estate which goes some way to illustrate the toll that a badly drawn up estate plan can have on loved ones. The family have been embroiled in a legal battle for nearly two years and a significant part of the estate has been lost to legal fees.

So what made Gary Coleman’s estate so troublesome?  Firstly, he had a Will written in 2005 naming his manager as the Executor and main beneficiary of his Will. But his ex-wife had a handwritten note from 2007 stating that she was the main beneficiary and Executor. Different jurisdictions have different laws regarding the status of a common-law spouse and the effect of marriage and divorce on the status of a Will, so there is no need to go into details of the judgement but there is a clear lesson here.

I actually feel sorry for Gary Coleman as many people find themselves in this situation. They have taken the time to prepare their Will (in this case in 2005), but in the space of a few years he married, divorced, then lived as common-law. Any lawyer would have advised him to update his Will on at least four or five occasions during those two years. But as we have discovered when dealing with customers at LegalWills many people are being charged as much to update a Will as it cost to create one in the first place. One person called our support line explaining that she had been quoted $100 “per change” to her Will. This puts people in a difficult situation where they try to handwrite changes on their Will, or even handwrite a “codicil” which is effectively what Gary Coleman did. Generally handwritten updates to Wills result in legal uncertainty, litigation, lawyer’s fees and acrimony between remaining loved ones.

This is why services such as those provided by LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com are becoming increasingly popular. It is precisely because Gary Coleman used the services of a lawyer, that there became a barrier to updating his Will. If he had used an online interactive service, he simply could have logged into his account, made the change and printed off a brand new, up-to date document.

The Perils of a Codicil

In a previous post we highlighted the dangers of making quick changes to a Last Will and Testament. We discussed the reasons why you might want to update your Will and the different options available to you for making an update. There were two important pieces of advice in this post; never make a handwritten change to a Will by scratching something out and annotating the text with a scrawled message. Secondly, don’t make a codicil and attach it to your Will, you are far better off re-writing your Will and starting afresh than adding codicils and attaching them to the original document.

Just a reminder; a codicil is a document that makes reference to the original Will, describes the required change and is then signed and witnessed in exactly the same way as a full Last Will and Testament. In practice this rarely serves as a shortcut because the signing requirements are the same. Furthermore, it is probably more difficult to write your own codicil as it is to write your own Will as there are very few resources and tools available to help in the process. There is still a certain amount of “legalese” that needs to appear in a codicil; statements like “in all other aspects I reaffirm my Will dated …..” which is not a sentence that comes naturally to most people. Codicils were popular back in the day because it saved typing out the whole 5 page document again, but of course, in today’s world of computers and printers, there is absolutely no time-saving. Unfortunately, people have a dangerous misconception that a codicil can simply be written and attached to the Will and this attachment has the same legal weight as the Will itself. Don’t believe me? then this news article from earlier this week demonstrates exactly the issue. A woman’s stepfather sadly killed himself and left a suicide note, then according to the article he:

“also left an addendum to his will – increasing Decatur’s inheritance to $100,000. The bulk of Badini’s $1.18 million estate is going to a well-known children’s charity. In his first will – Badini, a member of the Masonic Lodge – willed everything to their Shriners Hospitals for Children. Despite Badini’s handwritten change – it, and two earlier revisions, known legally as codicils – are being challenged….Richard Lyon, the attorney representing Shriners Hospitals told FOX 5: “It is our opinion that the judge should not have accepted the codicils.” Lyon says a probate judge entered the will and the codicils before anyone from Shriners Hospitals was aware of them. Here is the problem. The changes Badini made were not signed by any witnesses. Maryland law requires two witness signatures.”

That the codicils were ever accepted by the Probate courts is a complete mystery; these handwritten amendments to the Will are completely worthless under the law of this jurisdiction.

So our message remains the same. The easiest way to keep a Will updated to reflect a change of circumstance or a change of heart is to use an online service like those at LegalWills.ca , LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com . You can not only create your Will, but you can return at any time to make an update and then create a new Will to reflect a change on your personal or financial situation. It’s bad enough that 70 percent of adults don’t have a legal Will, but even worse that most people with a Will don’t maintain them because it is very inconvenient and expensive to do so. This unfortunate case shows that while in a desperate state, the last thing on this man’s mind was booking an appointment with a lawyer to prepare a new Will.