APRIL 7, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 13
From time to time we devote our weekly newsletter to a story about estate planning gone wrong — often (but not always) because of an individual’s decision to forego the help of a lawyer in drafting a will or trust. Lawyers also make mistakes, of course, but they are trained and paid to anticipate most of the kinds of issues that might arise. Untrained individuals may not have the skill or luck to foresee problems.
Consider Diane, who decided to write her own will. She bought a pre-printed will form at a bookstore, and opened up the package. In the middle of the form was a big open space with the language:
“I direct that after payment of all my just debts, my property be bequeathed in the manner following:”
Below that awkward introductory sentence, on the lines in the form, Diane wrote in:
“To my sister Mary Ann, my BigBank Checking and Savings Account, my house at 123 Poplar Street and its contents, my 2010 Dodge Truck and my Friendly Investments IRA. If Mary Anne dies before me, I leave all listed to my brother John.”
Diane completed the form properly, signed it, had it witnessed by two people and had the entire document notarized. She felt pleased that she had accomplished this task efficiently and inexpensively.
Do you already see what was wrong with Diane’s will? If you are a lawyer, you probably do — but you might not if you are not a lawyer.
Three years later Mary Ann died — before her sister, and before Diane’s will could leave anything to her. In fact, Mary Ann left her own home and bank account to Diane. Diane took the $120,000 she inherited from her sister and opened a new brokerage account at Friendly Investments (the same brokerage house where her IRA was located). Then, two years after Mary Ann’s death, Diane died.
Diane’s brother John did survive her. So did the two daughters of her other, deceased brother Jim. So who inherits what?
Those are essentially the facts of a recent Florida Supreme Court case, Aldrich v. Basile, (March 27, 2014), except that we have changed the names and a few of the details. In that case, the probate judge decided that Diane intended to leave everything to her brother John, and ordered that her nieces would receive nothing. The Court of Appeals ruled that Diane had died without a complete will, and that her nieces would receive a share of the undesignated part of her estate — the home and account she had inherited from her sister. The Florida Supreme Court had to decide between those two views, and ultimately sided with the Court of Appeals. Diane died “partially intestate” and the unspecified part of her estate would pass to her living brother and her late brother’s children. Her nieces received a share — a small share, to be sure — of her estate.
Now you can more easily see what was wrong with Diane’s will. She did not include a “residuary clause” providing for assets not listed in her will. If she had added a few short words to the end of the dispositive language she could have provided for distribution of “all the remaining assets I might own” or something similar.
Perhaps Diane actually did want to leave her inheritance to all of her relatives, and the failure to provide for it was not oversight but intentional. Well, there are more facts in the Florida case that we haven’t shared with you yet. After Mary Ann’s death, Diane grabbed a note pad (ironically, with the pre-printed heading “Just a Note”) and wrote out her additional instructions: “I reiterate that all my worldly possessions pass to my brother” John. She signed it, dated it, had it witnessed by one person (John’s daughter) and put it in the envelope with her will. Her wishes were pretty clear: she wanted to leave everything to John. That wasn’t what happened, however.
Diane’s will would actually have worked in Arizona. Unlike Florida, Arizona recognizes “holographic” (handwritten) wills even when they are not properly witnessed. Her “Just a Note” note would probably have been treated as an amendment or codicil to her will, and would probably have been admitted in Arizona probate court.
What is the lesson to be learned from Diane’s story (and case)? Even if you think your estate is small, and you want a “simple” will, you should see a lawyer. As we said at the beginning of Diane’s story, we’re trained and paid to think of how things might go wrong, or at least change, if circumstances change, and we’re familiar with the rules for wills, trusts and probate proceedings. Ultimately, Diane’s estate would have saved a lot of legal fees for the very modest cost of a lawyer at the outset — and what she wanted could actually have happened.