E-Z Legal Form Results in Uneasy Post-Death Issues

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May 1, 2014

Have you ever seen fill-in-the-blank wills online or in a bookstore? They are inexpensive and can be completed relatively quickly. Unfortunately, those forms are not personalized to meet your estate planning needs and they may lack provisions that are essential to disposing of your assets upon your death in accordance with your wishes.

The Florida Supreme Court recently warned against using pre-printed wills. Ann Aldrich used an E-Z Legal Forms pre-printed will. She listed every asset that she owned at the time, and she named her sister to inherit all of the listed assets. She named her brother to inherit all of the listed assets if her sister was not living. The will did not address the disposition of assets Ann might own when she died that were not listed in the will.

Ann’s sister died, and Ann inherited land and cash from her sister. Ann prepared a codicil, which is an amendment to a will. In the codicil, Ann named her brother to inherit all of her assets, including all of the listed assets and any unlisted assets. However, the codicil was invalid because it was not properly signed.

Ann died without making any other revisions to her will. All of the listed assets were distributed to her brother, but her brother and nieces argued over who should inherit the unlisted assets.

The Florida Supreme Court said that the will did not dispose of the unlisted assets, and the codicil was not valid because it was not properly signed. Therefore, the default state laws applied to the unlisted assets. Those laws provide that her brother and nieces each were entitled to inherit a share of the unlisted assets. The court cautioned against using pre-printed wills and drafting legal documents without legal assistance, warning that doing so ultimately results in spending more money in sorting out the post-death legal issues than the cost of working with an estate planning attorney.

There are two simple ways in which Ann could have avoided these post-death legal issues: (1) Ann’s will should have included a residuary clause, which is a provision that disposes of all unlisted assets; and (2) Ann’s codicil should have been properly signed. Many pre-printed wills do not include a residuary clause or caution you against making any changes without properly signing a codicil. An estate planning attorney can assist you in taking these simple steps to avoid any post-death legal issues.

If you are interested in developing a customized estate plan that will dispose of all of your assets upon your death without creating post-death legal issues, please contact any of the attorneys in the Trusts & Estates Practice Group at Ruder Ware.

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