Judge’s “Cautionary Tale” About Online Legal Forms

Last week the Supreme Court of Florida issued an opinion interpreting a will prepared using an online form.  The opinion specifically addressed how property acquired after the will was signed was to be distributed in the absence of a residuary clause (a catch-all provision) in the will.  Even though it appeared that the deceased had intended for the after acquired property to pass in accordance with the will, the Court ruled that the after acquired property must pass to the heirs as if there were no will.

imagesThe deceased, Ann Aldrich, prepared and executed a will using an E-Z Legal Form in 2004 leaving all of her property, which was itemized, to her sister and further providing if her sister predeceased her, the property was to be distributed to her brother.  Ms. Aldrich’s sister died three years later and left Ms. Aldrich land and cash.  Then Ms. Aldrich prepared a handwritten note intending for it to be an addendum to her will, leaving the newly inherited property and cash to her brother.  The “addendum” was signed only by one witness, which was ineffective under Florida law.

When Ms. Aldrich died, her nieces contested the will and the “addendum,” arguing that the will failed to include a residuary clause that would have included the after acquired property in the bequeath to Ms. Aldrich’s brother, and therefore it should be distributed under Florida intestate law, which would include them.  Ms. Aldrich’s brother argued, among other things, that Ms. Aldrich’s intent was clear that he should receive the after acquired property and cash.

The Court, supported by a brief filed by the Real Property Probate and Trust Law Section of The Florida Bar, ruled for the nieces, finding that while the will was a clear indication that Ms. Aldrich intended to leave all of the listed property to her brother, the will made no mention of the after acquired property.  And since there was no residuary clause or a general bequest in the will and the “addendum” was ineffective, Florida law required that the after acquired property be distributed according to Florida intestate law.

One justice, writing a concurring opinion, believed this to be a cautionary tale, stating that the phrase “penny-wise and pound-foolish” came to mind.

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.

Legal consumers should take note.  Caution and foresight are essential for those who choose not to engage an attorney when entering the legal arena.  This case is but one example of how a seeming simple legal matter can be more complicated than perceived.

You’ve got options. The Center for Legal Practice Reform can help you navigate the attorney/client relationship and level the playing field.  Call LPR today for a free consultation – (301) 351-7970.

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