Online Wills: Not So E-Z After All

We have warned in previous blogs about the potential negative effects of using “E-Z” online legal forms for your business.

These forms, unlike a qualified and experienced attorney, simply cannot account for every possible situation. Often, using an inexpensive form online can become a very expensive mistake in court. The same holds true for personal forms and legal documents. Although it may seem reasonable, easy and budget-friendly to fill out your will with an online form, the outcome can be devastating to your final wishes and your family.

Take, for instance, a case that was taken to the Florida Supreme Court in 2014. In this situation, a woman by the name of Ann Aldrich had used an “E-Z Legal Form” to fill out her will, in which she specified that her property including her house, car, bank accounts and life insurance, be distributed to her sister, Ms. Eaton. Ms. Aldrich provided in the will that if her sister should predecease her, then all of her listed property should be left to her brother, Mr. Aldrich.

That seems cut and dry, except for one very large hitch. The will did not have a residuary clause that would apply to any property not listed in the will. In other words, the will did not cover any items Ms. Aldrich did not specifically list, nor did it apply to any property or assets acquired after the will was executed.

Ms. Aldrich’s sister, Ms. Eaton, ended up passing away before her and she left Ms. Aldrich all of her property, which she placed into a separate account. When Ms. Aldrich died, her brother, Mr. Aldrich, became the representative of her estate, including the inheritance she had acquired from her sister. This all seems well and good and intentional, until two other family members stepped in. Ms. Aldrich’s two nieces asserted an interest in the estate, saying that it was subject to intestate succession, which is a set of rules that apply to a deceased person’s property that is not subject to a will, and which forces the property to be distributed in accordance with set laws of that state (not the person’s will).

In an adversary proceeding, Mr. Aldrich argued that his sister’s intent was for the entire estate to go to him as only he and his other deceased sister were even mentioned in the will. But the court held with the nieces, finding that the lack of general devises and a lack of a residuary clause in the will meant that the property acquired by Ms. Aldrich after the execution of her will was not governed by the will and therefore must pass through intestacy. The case was reversed by The First District Court of Appeal, but the initial ruling was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court, which noted that the intention of a testator as expressed in their will does not control the disposition of the testator’s property, but only to the extent specified in the will.

In other words, if your will does not expressly and properly distribute all of your assets and property, including those acquired after the execution of the will, it will become open to probate and intestacy laws, regardless of how transparent you believe you’ve written out your intentions in a DIY will. The loss of assets and time, not to mention the stress between family members, could all have been avoided in this case if Ms. Aldrich had simply paid a little bit more for an attorney to draft a will on her behalf. Most people don’t realize how affordable it can be to have a will and end-of-life documents professionally prepared by an attorney. The benefit and savings in the long run are incalculable.

Wills are meant to help our family members, friends or charitable organizations. They are supposed to relieve, not increase, the stress on our loved ones after our passing. Nobody wants their death to create strife amongst family members and certainly no one intends for family members to be sitting across from each other in court over their possessions. Avoid this unnecessary and unfortunate situation for you and your family. Contact an attorney who is experienced in estate planning, wills and trusts today.