Why should anyone consider using the services of a lawyer when it is so easy to find on the Internet – either free or for a very small price – just about any legal form one might need?
As recently noted by a state Supreme Court Justice, using online or other commercially available “Do-It-Yourself” legal forms to save money on attorneys fees carries with it the potential of costing many times more than what it would have cost to hire a lawyer to do the legal work in the first instance.
The following is from the Court’s written opinion:
On April 5, 2004, Ms. [Ann] Aldrich wrote her will on an “E–Z Legal Form.” In Article III [of her Will], entitled “Bequests,” just after the form’s pre-printed language “direct[ing] that after payment of all my just debts, my property be bequeathed in the manner following,” she hand wrote instructions directing that all of the following “possessions listed” go to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton. . . .
Ann also wrote: “If Mary Jane Eaton dies before I do, I leave all listed to James Michael Aldrich, 2250 S. Palmetto 114 S Daytona FL 32119.” Containing no other distributive provisions, the will was duly signed and witnessed.”
Three years later, Ms. Eaton did die before Ann, becoming her benefactor instead of her beneficiary. Ms. Eaton left cash and land in Putnam County to Ms. Aldrich, who deposited the cash she inherited from Ms. Eaton in an account she opened for the purpose with Fidelity Investments. On October 9, 2009, Ann Dunn Aldrich herself passed away, never having revised her will to dispose of the inheritance she had received from her sister.
The problem, as framed by the Court, was that Ann’s “E–Z Legal Form” Will failed to provide for the disposition of assets “not named or in any way described in the Will, despite the absence of any residuary clause, or any other clause disposing of the property, where the decedent acquired the property in question after the Will was executed.”
Does this sound like a bunch of incomprehensible “legalese?” Probably. However, this is exactly the type of legalese that lawyers are paid to avoid.
After Ann died in 2009, the court case involving her case worked its way through the Florida state court system, until March 2014, when the Florida Supreme Court issued its opinion resolving the legal issues.
One of the Supreme Court Justices wrote:
This unfortunate result stems not from this Court’s interpretation of Florida’s probate law, but from the fact that Ms. Aldrich wrote her [W]ill using a commercially available form, an “E-Z Legal Form,” which did not adequately address her specific needs—apparently without obtaining any legal assistance. . . . Apparently, Ms. Aldrich at some point recognized that [there was a problem with her E-Z Legal Form Will; however,] her attempts to [remedy the problem], although logical, were legally ineffective. [underline added.]
The Justice continued:
While I appreciate that there are many individuals in this state who might have difficulty affording a lawyer, this case does remind me of the old adage “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” Obviously, the cost of drafting a will through the use of a pre-printed form is likely substantially lower than the cost of hiring a knowledgeable lawyer. However, as illustrated by this case, the ultimate cost of utilizing such a form to draft one’s will has the potential to far surpass the cost of hiring a lawyer at the outset. . . .
The Justice concluded:
I therefore take this opportunity to highlight 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.
We found the Court’s full opinion here:
Although Ann’s case happened to have occurred in Florida, it could just as easily have occurred in Texas or any other jurisdiction.
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Disclaimer: The information contained in this publication is provided by Lapin Law Offices, P.C., for informational purposes only and, shall not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. The laws and interpretation of laws discussed herein may not accurately reflect the law in the reader’s jurisdiction. Do not rely on the information contained in this publication for any purpose. If you have a specific legal question, please consult with an attorney in your jurisdiction who is competent to assist you.