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Florida Justices Warn of the Dangers of Estate Planning Without an Attorney

Many people think they will save time and expense by using pre-printed forms to meet their legal needs such as a last will and testament. But pre-printed forms carry significant risks, especially when individuals fill them out without obtaining the advice of an experienced California estate planning attorney. In fact, the Florida Supreme Court recently warned people of the risks of using pre-printed wills in a decision that illustrates the perils of relying on commercial forms.

Basile v. Aldrich

In April 2004, Ann Aldrich purchased a commercial pre-printed last will and testament form. She prepared the form herself, apparently without any legal advice. Under a section marked “Bequests,” Aldrich identified several specific items of real and personal property. She left all of the listed property to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton. Aldrich named her brother, James Aldrich, as alternate beneficiary of those particular assets if her sister did not survive her. Aldrich apparently had no children or heirs aside from her two siblings.

Indeed, Eaton died in 2007, two years before Aldrich herself passed away. Because Eaton died first, her estate left property to Aldrich, including cash and land. Aldrich placed the cash in a brokerage account. She did not revise her 2004 pre-printed will to reflect the additional property in her estate.

James Aldrich was appointed executor of the Estate of Ann Aldrich. He argued that, as he was the only surviving named beneficiary in the will, his sister intended he should inherit the entire estate, including the cash and land received from Eaton’s estate two years earlier. But Eaton’s two children challenged this. They argued that since Ann Aldrich’s pre-printed form contained no residuary clause-a designation of who should receive any property not specifically disposed of in the will-the property from their late mother’s estate should pass under Florida intestacy law. That would mean the cash and land would be divided, with half going to James Aldrich as the surviving brother, and the other half to the nieces and heirs of the predeceased sister.

Ultimately, after several years of litigation, the Florida Supreme Court sided with the nieces. The justices unanimously agreed that absent a residuary clause or specific language disposing of the Eaton inheritance, the disputed property had to pass under intestacy law.

Justice Barbara J. Pariente, writing separately from the rest of the Court, noted that “although this is the correct result under Florida’s probate law, this result does not effectuate Ms. Aldrich’s true intent.” There was evidence that Aldrich intended to leave her entire estate solely to her brother. But that evidence was not admissible under Florida law. Justice Pariente added, “This unfortunate result stems not from this Court’s interpretation of Florida’s probate law, but from the fact that Ms. Aldrich wrote her will using a commercially available form … which did not adequately address her specific needs-apparently without obtaining any legal assistance.”

Don’t Do it Alone

Justice Pariente cautioned that while using a pre-printed form may save money in the short term, the long-term costs will negate any savings, especially if the will ends up in litigation over questions of the deceased person’s intentions. Speed and convenience should not be paramount concerns when it comes to a will or any other estate planning document. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you have any questions.

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