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Writing Your Own Will Can Lead to Legal Problems

There are many reasons why it is a bad idea to write your own will. For one thing, you may not be familiar with the proper usage of certain legal terms, which can lead you to write something that may be interpreted in a completely different manner by a probate court. A recent California case illustrates how even a single word can spark years of unnecessary litigation after your death.

Heir vs. Beneficiary

This case is only an illustration and is not a definitive statement of California law. This case actually involves two estates—that of a mother and her son. The mother died in 1992. She left a handwritten, four-paragraph will naming her son “as sole heir and executor to manage estate affairs.”

Despite leaving a minimal will, the mother actually owned a sizable estate valued at over $10 million. Legal and tax issues kept the estate open for more than two decades, during which time the son also passed away. The son’s wife then assumed control of the mother’s estate and asked a probate court to approve a final distribution.

The mother had one other child, a daughter who predeceased her by several years. This daughter had two children of her own. The granddaughters contested the son’s estate’s claim to 100% of the mother’s estate. They argued their grandmother’s will was ambiguous and “her estate should be distributed according to the laws of intestate succession,” which means they would inherit one-half of the estate through their late mother.

A probate judge sided with the granddaughters, but the California Sixth District Court of Appeals reversed in favor of the son’s estate. The key legal question was whether the use of the term “heir” in the mother’s will was ambiguous. Traditionally, the term “heir” refers to someone who inherits due to the law of intestacy—that is, in cases where there is no valid will. When you name someone to inherit your property in a will, that person is actually a “beneficiary” or “legatee” of your estate, not technically an heir.

But as the Court of Appeals noted in this case, the mother was a layperson, not a lawyer. Due to her “lack of legal sophistication,” she likely used the term heir “to mean the person entitled to inherit or the beneficiary.” In other words, her will intended for her son to be the sole “beneficiary” of her estate.

Get Help With Your Will From a California Estate Planning Attorney

It may seem ridiculous that a single misstated word could spawn years of litigation. Yet this is the risk someone takes when they attempt to prepare a binding legal document without the proper expertise or assistance. A will is suppose to clarify matters so as to minimize any potential conflict among family members. That is why it is important to work with an experienced San Diego estate planning attorney who understands how to properly word a last will and testament. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady if you need to speak with an attorney today.

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