The Florida Supreme Court recently decided the long and costly case of a deceased woman who tried to write her own Will using an online legal form.
In Aldrich, v. Basile, Ann Aldrich used a pre-printed legal form to draft a Will. She did this most likely to avoid paying an estate-planning attorney. This Florida Supreme Court Decision resulted in costly legal fees and most likely years of anguish for her family.
Deciding who would inherit Ann Aldrich’s property was appealed twice, which was finally decided by the Florida Supreme Court. The court’s decision of who would inherit the property was most likely not what the deceased had intended. Justice Pariente wrote in her concurring opinion the result of the court’s decision came not from the interpretation of Florida law but from Ann’s mistake of using an online form that did not adequately express her specific needs.
Ann Aldrich handwrote her Will using an E-Z legal form. In this document she wrote specific directions for her house and its contents, her life insurance policy, her car, and her bank accounts to pass to her sister Mary Jane Eaton. She even took a further precaution by writing in her Will that if her sister died before her, the above-mentioned assets would pass to her brother James Aldrich.
Tragically, her Will failed to include a residuary clause to address any other property she might own at death. Her sister died three years later after Ann drafted her Will. Her sister left her cash and real estate, which Ann deposited into an account with Fidelity Investments.
Ann Aldrich passed away 2 years later and had never revised her Will to include the additional assets she acquired from her sister’s estate. Since her Will did not include a residuary clause, a dispute arose within the family regarding who should actually inherit the property Ann received from her sister. James Aldrich, the brother, believed he should receive these assets, like the other property described within the Will. The other heirs, two nieces, believed the property should be considered intestate property. Intestate property is property distributed to the deceased’s heirs according to state law, because the property was not accounted for in a Will. If the property were intestate, then the nieces would receive a significant portion of the assets.
Ann did attempt to draft an amendment to her Will in 2008. The amendment stated that since her sister died, she wished to reiterate that all her worldly possessions should pass to her brother. However, the note only had one other signature, and thus the amendment was not valid under Florida law.
The trial court originally found in favor of James Aldrich, but the nieces appeal and won. The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court, ruling Ann’s 2008 amendment to be extrinsic evidence because the amendment was not properly drafted. When looking at a Will, the Court shies away from trying to guess the intent of the deceased who drafted the bill, and instead will only consider the concrete language of the document. Therefore, any assets not specifically included in Ann’s Will would have to pass to her heirs according to Florida’s intestate laws.
This court case serves as a reminder of the risks involved with estate planning. We recommend hiring an experienced estate planning attorney to draft your Will and to ensure your heirs are properly taken care of.