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DIY Estate Planning: Can I Make a Will Myself?

While a steady drive towards technology has been growing for decades, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic tremendously increased our reliance on technology, effectively changing the the way we do nearly everything, including estate planning. Do-It-Yourself (DIY) online services offering legal templates and forms have gained popularity in the wake of the stay-home orders, popular for their convenience and low cost. DIY estate planning forms, such as like a last will and testament, codicils and health care or financial powers of attorney, created without the guidance of an attorney can create several issues.

Take, for instance, the case of Aldrich v. Basile, which the Supreme Court of Florida called “a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance.”[1] In Aldrich, a women used a DIY will template that willed several assets to her brother. After creating this will, she inherited some property and large sum of money. Her will, however, did not contain a residuary clause, which accounts for all property not specially bequeathed in the will. Upon her death, her brother and nieces began suit to determine the rightful owner to the inherited money and property, each claiming it was theirs. The Florida Supreme Court held that because the will did not contain a residuary clause, the money and property would pass through intestacy (the law that happens when someone dies without a valid will), meaning it would be split according to the default Florida laws. This case demonstrates the detrimental impact of an online will template can have when it does not adequately address your estate’s specific, changing needs.

Larry King’s Handwritten Will Ordeal

The recent passing of the broadcasting legend, Larry King, has resulted in his family not only mourning him but also fighting amongst themselves over his true last wishes. Larry, together with his wife, Shawn Southwick King, had executed estate planning documents in 2015, where he named her the personal representative of his estate. However, the couple faced some difficulties and Larry filed for divorce in August 2019. Just two months later, he executed a new handwritten will, leaving his entire estate valued at $2 million dollars to his five children. Two witnesses also signed their names to the hand-written will.

Larry’s eldest son, Larry King Jr., submitted the 2019 will to the court and has petitioned to be appointed the temporary administrator of Larry’s estate. However, Shawn has filed an objection to the 2019 will, claiming that the will is invalid and that Larry King Jr. exerted undue influence over his father towards the end of his life, and insisting that the 2015 will is the valid one.

Contracts to Create a Will

A last will and testament must be the consequence of a person’s free will (which is why they are aptly referred to as “wills”). Nevertheless, a person may execute a contract during life to include certain terms and/or beneficiaries in their will in exchange for goods or services.

Enforcing a contract to create a will is more complex than enforcing a normal contract. With these types of agreements, it may be impossible to tell whether the testator lived up to his or her side of the bargain until their estate plan is revealed after their death. Additionally, the terms of a will do not come into effect until death, so there may not technically be a breach of the contract until the decedent’s death. Further, if you were supposed to be a part of the decedent’s estate plan, but were not included, it’s possible you may never even receive notice regarding the administration of the decedent’s estate.

Social Distancing and Signing Documents: Can a Beneficiary Act as a Witness?

During COVID-19, we have had to adapt the way we sign estate planning documents while maintaining safe social distancing. Although businesses are slowly reopening and things appear to be getting back to a sense of normal, it is still important to be cautious and keep our exposures to a minimum. One of the strategies Chepenik Trushin LLP has adjusted is to make the estate planning process entirely remote, with phone and video conferences, email communications, and sending estate planning documents through regular or electronic mail with detailed instructions for clients to sign on their own. For some clients, this has worked well, but for others, it has been a challenge to find two witnesses and a notary, which are required for many estate planning documents. A frequent question that has arisen is whether a relative or a beneficiary may serve as the witness to a will or other estate planning documents, such as a trust.

For a number of years, Florida law disfavored beneficiaries under a will from also being witnesses to the will. Under current Florida law, a will or codicil is not invalid simply because the will or codicil is signed by an interested witness. Fla. Stat. § 732.504(2). Based on the Florida statute, a beneficiary can serve as a witness to a will.

How Can you Prove Undue Influence?

For a Will to be valid, certain conditions must be met. The testator must have legal capacity, at least eighteen years old, must have testamentary intent, and the will must not be a product of undue influence or duress. The first two requirements are usually relatively easy issues to resolve, but undue influence and duress is not always clear. As the Supreme Court of Florida explained, “[u]ndue influence is not usually exercised openly in the presence of others, so that it may be directly proved, hence it may be proved by indirect evidence of facts and circumstances from which it may be inferred.”

In In re Estate of Carpenter, the Supreme Court of Florida listed a set of seven, non-exhaustive factors to consider when deciding cases of Undue Influence:

Seeking Paternity in Probate: Are You Out of Time?

When an estate enters probate and is being distributed, the distribution is usually between family members. Family members can include spouse, children from the marriage, parent, adopted child, aunt, cousin, etc. If there are issues or questions about the status of these individuals, they are usually litigated after the estate holder passes. But what if you are a child born out-of-wedlock? What status do you have and what rights do you have to the estate?

Under Fla. Stat. § 732.103, any children from the marriage are automatically deemed heirs of the estate, and entitled to a share of the intestate estate. But out-of-wedlock children have to establish paternity if they want to share in the distribution of the estate. But do these individuals have the opportunity to litigate the paternity after the father has passed? The opportunity is there, but it is subject to a statute of limitations under Fla. Stat. § 95.11(3)(b). The statute imposes a four year limitation for paternity actions generally, starting from the date the individual turns eighteen.

Probating the Estate of a Missing Person

Even more excruciating than the death of a beloved person is arguably the uncertainty when the beloved person goes missing and his or her body is never recovered. Florida laws contain rules that allow the surviving family members to complete the mourning process, declare the missing person dead, and move on with their lives. One of the issues that the surviving members must deal with is the distribution of the estate of the deceased. Can you probate a missing person’s estate?

The answer is yes. However, as the first step, the missing person must be declared fictitiously dead. Under Florida Statute §731.103(3), a person who is absent from the place of his or her last-known domicile for a continuous period of five years and whose absence is not satisfactorily explained after diligent search and inquiry is presumed to be dead. The thoroughness of the search for the missing person is considered on a case by case basis; therefore, what may be enough in one case might be insufficient in another one. What is clear though is that at least some search must be done every time.

What is my Deadline to Contest a Will in Florida?

Surprisingly, as astounding 55% of adults in the United States do not have a Will or any other sort of estate plan in place. While planning one’s estate certainly makes matters easier for loved ones after death, problems can arise even when one does make a will. There are dozens of reasons one may want to contest a will. Some of these include including lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, fraud, lack of the required number of witnesses or discovery of a later will. But when one realizes there is an issue with a will, what does one do and how much time does one have to challenge it? Legal actions typically have a statute of limitations. As defined by Black’s Law Dictionary, a statute of limitations is the “time frame set by legislation where affected parties need to take action to enforce rights or seeks redress after injury or damage.”

In Florida, the time limitation to challenge a will is statutory. While Florida allows years to pass on claims before barring actions with a statute of limitations, the Florida Legislature only gives three (3) months for someone to contest a will. Florida Statute §733.212 (the “Statute”) outlines the process and deadlines for the filing of objections. It states in relevant part:

Florida Anti-Lapse Statute

When preparing a Will, it is assumed that the beneficiaries that you name will outlive you. If you expect someone to die before you, it would not make sense to leave any of your wealth and assets behind for them. However, unexpected things happen. Unfortunately, testator’s live beyond the life of their beneficiaries all the time. Sometimes, people do not update or even think about their Will for decades and those named years ago as beneficiaries have passed away. What happens to the gift(s) left for someone who is now deceased?

This concept is known as “lapse.” The original, common law understanding of lapse, was that if a beneficiary predeceases the testator, the specific gift will fall back into the residuary estate of the testator, not the estate of the deceased beneficiaries. For example, if the will states “Car to X, everything else to Y,” and X dies before the testator, the car will fall back to the residuary estate and go to Y. If both X and Y die, the testator’s estate will pass through intestacy.

What is Elder financial Exploitation?

The Florida Department of Elder Affairs defines elder financial exploitation as “the illegal or improper use of another individual’s resources for personal profit or gain.”  This exploitation takes on many forms involving deception and/or coercion, including the improper use of a power of attorney.

What is a Power of Attorney (“POA”)?

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