A recent Florida case, In re Estate of Aldrich, demonstrated the potential consequences of using so-called “Do-It-Yourself” legal forms as a substitute for professional legal advice. The case was centered on the will of Ann Dunn Aldrich, which had been written by Mrs. Aldrich with the assistance of an “E-Z Legal form” template. In her will, Mrs. Aldrich itemized the assets of her estate and devised them to her sister. Should her sister predecease her, Mrs. Aldrich stipulated that the assets of her estate go to her husband, Mr. Aldrich. However, Mrs. Aldrich failed to include a residuary clause, which would have detailed her intentions regarding assets not specifically mentioned.
Several years after Mrs. Aldrich wrote her will, Mrs. Aldrich’s sister predeceased her. As a devisee of her sister’s will, Mrs. Aldrich inherited land in Putnam County, Florida, as well as a sum of money. After inheriting these new assets, Mrs. Aldrich failed to update the Do-It-Yourself will that she had constructed. As a result, the assets that Mrs. Aldrich inherited from her sister were never referenced in Mrs. Aldrich’s will. In Florida, the laws of intestacy apply to all assets that are not provided for in a person’s will.
Although Mrs. Aldrich devised the assets she did account for to her husband, when the disposition of her estate went to probate, two of her nieces claimed an interest in the money and land that Mrs. Aldrich had inherited upon her sister’s death. While a testator’s probable intentions are important to a court, the laws of intestacy ultimately reign. To no avail, Mr. Aldrich argued that because Mrs. Aldrich had only mentioned him and Mrs. Aldrich’s sister as potential beneficiaries of the estate, it was reasonable to conclude that Mrs. Aldrich had not intended for any of the estate to go to her nieces. He also pointed out Florida Statute 732.6005(2), which stipulates that a will be interpreted as providing even for property acquired after the date the will is signed. However, the distribution of such property would be made pursuant to a residuary clause, which, as previously mentioned, was notably absent from Mrs. Aldrich’s will.
Although Mrs. Aldrich likely intended for all of her assets to go to her husband, the silence of her will with regard to the land and property was not open to debate. Under Florida laws of intestacy, the property was treated as if no will had existed and was therefore went to Mrs. Aldrich’s nieces in accordance with the intestacy statute. Had Mrs. Aldrich sought professional legal advice, a residuary clause would have been included in Mrs. Aldrich’s will and her intentions would have been clear. Ironically, Mrs. Alrdrich’s use of the do-it-yourself template was in all likelihood an effort to save a few dollars. However, after litigating over her estate, Mrs. Aldrich’s family likely spent a great deal more in legal fees than they would have if she had sought skilled legal advice in drafting the will. That is not to say that routine legal processes may never be done without assistance, but it is important that this story serve as a warning to those wishing to use products or websites purporting to be adequate substitutes for professional advice. Oftentimes they are wholly inadequate and end up costing the user or their family far more money than they save.
If you or someone you know is in need of professional legal advice in the areas of probate, estate planning, or guardianship, do not hesitate to contact the experienced legal team at Chepenik Trushin LLP for a consultation.