MAY 31, 2010 VOLUME 17, NUMBER 18
You have made your appointment to discuss estate planning. Our office has sent you a reminder letter, an explanation of what will happen when you get here, a map with parking instructions — and an 8-page questionnaire, asking for all sorts of details about your family, your assets and your wishes. Why do we make you do all that work just to have an initial estate planning appointment? Because of William Bruinsma.
Mr. Bruinsma lived in a subsidized senior housing facility in Massachusetts. He visited his lawyer in 1993 and asked for help in preparing a “simple will.” He was very secretive, and did not want to tell his lawyer about his assets. He did insist that he didn’t want to spend too much money in legal fees, and he wanted his will to be simple.
Estate planning lawyers are very familiar with the type of client. In fact, no estate planning attorney we know has ever heard a client ask for a “complicated” will — everyone thinks their wills should be simple.
What Mr. Bruinsma wanted sounded simple enough. He wanted the income from his assets (whatever they might be) to go to his sister and his long-time friend. After both of them died, the remaining money should go to a group of charities. The simple will his lawyer prepared was just two pages long.
Five years later Mr. Bruinsma died, and it turned out that his estate was about $1.7 million. The will was so simple that his estate did not qualify for a charitable deduction — meaning his estate would pay about $466,733 in federal and state estate taxes that could have been easily avoided if the lawyer had known he needed to prepare a slightly more complex will.
Was that the result Mr. Bruinsma wanted? If he had known that the investment of a few hundred dollars during his life could have dramatically increased the income stream to his sister and friend, would he have made the investment? We will never know, because his lawyer did not know to ask those questions — Mr. Bruinsma had not provided enough information to allow the lawyer to give comprehensive legal advice.
Admittedly, the facts in Mr. Bruinsma’s case are relatively extreme. OK, you’re right — the same thing would not happen today and in Arizona, because there is no federal or Arizona state estate tax in place. But our point is still valid: if we do not have a fairly complete picture of your assets, your family and your intentions, we will not be able to prepare a good will, whether or not it is a simple will. Besides, the estate tax might just return next year at the $1 million level, in which case an Arizona version of Mr. Bruinsma would be making only a $350,000 mistake.
And now you know: if you really want to surprise your estate planning lawyer, just sit down in the first conference and insist that what you are hoping for is a complex will.
Incidentally, the charities in Mr. Bruinsma’s simple will ultimately joined forces with the sister, the friend and even the state Attorney General to ask the courts to reform the will so that the estate tax effect could be eliminated. After spending, presumably, thousands of dollars in legal fees to seek that result, they were all turned down by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (the state’s highest court). That court ruled that there is no law permitting reformation of a will to correct an alleged error on the part of the person signing the will. Mr. Bruinsma’s secrecy — and his thrift — ended up costing nearly half a million dollars. Pellegrini v. Breitenbach, May 25, 2010.