Online legal services — buyer beware!

Anyone who does a little online research about making a will inevitably arrives at one or more websites that advertise “do-it-yourself” wills. These websites sell a form for just a fraction of the cost of hiring an attorney to make a will for you. When you think you know who you want to leave all of your stuff to when you die, it’s easy to think that the will you buy online is all you need.

However, a recent case from Florida reveals the limits of online legal forms and how they are no replacement for assistance from a well-trained attorney. In 2004 Ann Aldrich created her will using a product called “E-Z Legal Form.” In the will, she left her house, car, retirement account, bank account, and life insurance account to her sister. The will also stated that if Ann’s sister predeceased Ann, then Ann’s brother was to inherit all of the listed property. Ann’s sister did die before her, and left Ann real estate and cash. Unfortunately, the will didn’t say who was to inherit any of Ann’s property that she acquired after she made the will in 2004.

Furthermore, as often happens with  problems in wills and other estate planning documents, the problem wasn’t discovered until it was too late. When Ann died in 2009, there was a dispute about who would inherit the property Ann inherited from her deceased sister. Ann’s brother argued that Ann’s intent was for him to inherit everything – after all, he was the only one named in the will after the predeceased sister. But Ann’s nieces believed that because Ann listed the specific property for the brother to inherit, any property not specifically listed in the will should not be distributed through the will.

Although Ann left a note with her will that seemed to indicate her desire to leave “all of her worldly possessions” to her brother, the Florida courts determined that the note was not a valid codicil to Ann’s will. Therefore, because Ann’s will mentioned specific items of property and did not mentioned all of her property, then the property she acquired after 2004 passed by intestacy. Even though Ann did not provide any bequest to her nieces her will, under Florida intestacy law, they received a portion of Ann’s estate.

One of the justices of the Florida Supreme Court noted “that although this is the correct result under Florida’s probate law, this result does not effectuate Ms. Aldrich’s true intent.”

If Ann Aldrich’s will was contested in Virginia, it is likely that a Virginia court would reach the same result, since the laws regarding interpretation of wills in Florida are similar to the laws in Virginia.

What is troubling is that Ann could have saved all of this trouble by getting the advice of a competent attorney! Not only did Ann’s property go to people she didn’t intend to receive it, but it took nearly five years of litigation between family members that ultimately ended up in the state Supreme Court. As the court noted, Ann Aldrich’s estate serves as “a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance. As this case illustrates, that decision can ultimately result in the frustration of the testator’s intent, in addition to the payment of extensive attorney’s fees—the precise results the testator sought to avoid in the first place.”

Kristina Beavers, Attorney at Law is a full-service law firm that helps clients create the estate plan they need to fulfill their wishes. A good estate planning attorney does more than just draft documents – she will meet with clients before and after creating their documents to make sure their documents will fulfill their intent, protect them, their beneficiaries, and their assets. A good estate planning attorney knows that no estate plan is “one size fits all” and knows just how to tailor the plan to every client’s needs.

If you have questions about your own estate plan, if you are concerned that a loved one’s do-it-yourself estate plan is not valid or inadequate for their needs, contact Kristina Beavers, Attorney at Law.

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