Not So “E-Z” After All: The Perils of Using Online Wills and Estate Planning Forms

With countless websites offering do-it-yourself legal forms on the Internet, especially wills and other estate planning documents, it can certainly be tempting to simply download one of these documents, fill in some blanks, and feel like you’ve taken care of your affairs. Who needs a lawyer when you have your laptop?

For individuals who consider their assets limited and their estate uncomplicated, using something called an “E-Z Legal Form” could seem like a good way to save some money on legal fees. However, “DIY” estate planning, even for simple estates, can prove disastrously insufficient, leading to results that may have not been intended and expenses infinitely greater than those supposedly saved by using an online form.

From “E-Z Legal Form” to Florida Supreme Court

Such was the case last year in Florida. Ann Aldrich had a relatively limited number of assets and used on online “E-Z Legal Form” to prepare a will in which she listed all of her assets and specified that her property was to be left to her sister, and if her sister died first, then her property would go to her brother.

When her sister did in fact die first, the sister left money and property to Aldrich. The form will Aldrich prepared, however, did not contain a residuary clause or other language to address what was to happen to any property she acquired after she executed the will.

When Aldrich passed away, her brother became personal representative of the estate and filed an action claiming that he should get the entire estate, including the after-acquired money and property from their sister. But two nieces claimed that since the will was silent as to these assets, they should pass under Florida’s intestacy laws.

In Aldrich v. Basile, 136 So. 3d 530 (Fla. 2014), The Florida Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision in favor of the nieces, finding that the lack of a residuary clause meant that the disposition of the after-acquired property would be determined by Florida law. The Court acknowledged that Aldrich may have in fact wanted all of her property to pass just like the assets she specified in her will, but put the blame for this likely unintended result squarely on the insufficiency of the “E-Z” form that Aldrich used for her will.

The “Unfortunate Result”

Noting that the form “did not have space to include a residuary clause or pre-printed language that would allow a testator to elect to use such a clause,” the Court stated that:

“This unfortunate result stems not from this court’s interpretation of Florida’s probate law, but from the fact that Ms. Aldrich wrote her will using a commercially available form . . . which did not adequately address her specific needs — apparently without obtaining any legal assistance.”

The lessons of this cautionary tale are as applicable in Illinois as they are in Florida, and the lack of a residuary clause or similar language in an Illinois will would likely lead to the same result. As tempting as it may be these days to look online for solutions to address your legal needs, this case is yet another reminder that your laptop is not your lawyer. Failure to get sound counsel and advice from an estate planning lawyer can result in the “E-Z” way out being anything but.

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