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Is it a Bad Idea to Write My Own Will?

Some people decide to write their own last will and testament without the assistance of an estate planning lawyer. While such wills are generally valid, provided they comply with the requirements of California law, there is always the risk that ambiguity in a will drafted by a non-attorney may lead to misunderstandings. Such misunderstandings can lead to litigation, which largely defeats the purpose of having a will in the first place.

Handwritten Will Leads to Lawsuit Over Woman’s Intentions

A recent South Dakota case illustrates the types of problems that may arise from self-drafted wills. The will in this case was written by a woman who was serving a jail term at a South Dakota women’s prison. The will was “holographic,” meaning it was handwritten by the woman. Holographic wills are considered valid in most states provided they are signed and in the testator’s own handwriting.

The woman died in 2013. By the terms of the will, the decedent gave “all of my belongings” to two of her friends, “contingent on” carrying out three specific requests. These were to give a “share” of her belongings to her brother, finding a new home for her pet bird, and “making some arrangements” to file a lawsuit against the prison “to correct injustices” she suffered during her incarceration. A separate paragraph named the same two friends as executors.

A dispute arose between the decedent’s brother and the executors over how to dispose of the residue of the estate. The executors argued the decedent made a gift to them of her entire estate less the three conditional gifts specified above. The decedent’s brother argued that he alone was entitled to the residue of the estate after the bird and lawsuit arrangements were made. The brother said his sister’s will only intended to name the two friends as executors, not beneficiaries.

A trial judge sided with the brother, but the South Dakota Supreme Court reversed in favor of the executors. The Supreme Court said the statement, “I give all my belongings to [the executors]” was “not ambiguous.” It “unequivocally” made the executors beneficiaries subject to the three conditions.

Have a California Estate Planning Attorney Prepare Your Will

Even though the South Dakota Supreme Court declared the language of the decedent’s will was “unambiguous,” it was still confusing enough to the trial judge who ruled the other way. This entire lawsuit might have been avoided had the decedent had access to an attorney who could have helped her to clarify her intentions. An experienced estate planning lawyer understands how to make gifts clear so as to avoid unnecessary confusion among relatives and beneficiaries.

In short, it is never a good idea to draft your own will. You may feel you will save time and money by doing it yourself. But there may be long-term consequences for your estate and heirs. That is why you should seek out an experienced San Diego estate planning lawyer to assist you with your will. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady if you would like to speak with someone right away.

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