Sometimes people consider estate planning to be a fairly simple thing to do themselves without the need to consult an attorney. After all, estate planning documents are merely paper, right?
Well, although estate planning documents are indeed merely paper with printed words, there is an important thought process behind what should or should not be included in a will or a trust or a power of attorney. Unfortunately, the layman is almost always poorly equipped to try to emulate that process and will generally be unaware of the problems that can arise when a “do it yourself” legal document omits important provisions. The case of Aldrich v. Basile (Fla., No. SC11-2147, March 27, 2014) from the Florida Supreme Court is an example of how “do it yourself” planning in the end achieved undesirable results.
In 2004, Ann Aldrich wrote out a will using a preprinted product sold commercially as an “E-Z Legal Form.” As per the instructions she was provided, she handwrote in some instructions to direct that “my property be bequeathed in the manner following…” Her instructions directed that her sister was to receive the five (5) specific assets she listed and she further clarified that in the event her sister predeceased her, “I leave all listed” to her brother. There were no other instructions in the Will about distribution of those assets either preprinted on the form or handwritten by Ms. Aldrich herself.
Three years after Ms. Aldrich executed her E-Z Legal Form Will, her sister did predecease her and Ms. Aldrich inherited a parcel of land and some $122,000 in cash. Ms. Aldrich never revised her will, which remained unchanged until Ms. Aldrich herself passed away in 2009.
The ensuing litigation considered different claims on the disposition of the assets Ms. Aldrich inherited from her sister. On one side was Ms. Aldrich’s brother, who argued that since he and his late sister were the only individuals mentioned by name in the instrument, it would be reasonable for the Court to infer Ms. Aldrich intended him to receive her entire estate. In opposition were the children of a predeceased brother. Those nieces apparently agreed that the surviving brother was entitled to receive the specifically listed assets, but they maintained that Ms. Aldrich should be considered intestate as to the other assets since the Will contained no instructions whatsoever on how they should be distributed.
Interestingly, when Ms. Aldrich died, there was a handwritten note she attached to her Will. The note said that she intended it to be an addendum to her 2004 Will. She acknowledged her sister had predeceased her and then she stated “I reiterate that all my worldly possessions pass to my brother…”
Ultimately the Court sided with the nieces. Relying on firmly established legal doctrine that they could only infer intent based on the “four corners of the document,” that is what was actually included in the Will, there was nothing to sustain the argument of the brother. Since the later handwritten note was not even signed by Ms. Aldrich, the note was disregarded.
What can we learn from the Aldrich case? In the end Ms. Aldrich’s “do it yourself” efforts resulted in a failed plan that cost many times more than the advice and counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney would have cost in the beginning. To us as advisors and counselors, it seems obvious that a properly drafted Will must always include a provision to deal with the distribution of all assets. Further, we have spent 20 years developing systems, processes and staff members to work with our clients to try and make sure that every estate plan works - even under changed circumstances such as the inheritance of new assets.
Yet clearly that is not true for a forms company that only sells paper, not thoughtful counsel. Had Ms. Aldrich consulted an experienced estate planning attorney who advised her on the issues, a properly drafted Will could have been prepared and executed so that Ms. Aldrich’s assets would have been distributed as she intended. This would have allowed her Estate and her loved ones to avoid the expense and anguish of litigation.
Please call us at 860-769-6938 if you have any questions about the issues presented above or if you care to discuss any other planning issues with us.