Florida Supreme Court Case Illustrates the Dangers of Online Legal Forms

On March 27, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case of Aldrich v. Basile.  This case concerned the Last Will and Testament of Ann Aldrich, which she drafted using an “E-Z Legal Form.”  Ms. Aldrich made specific bequests in the Will, but the Will contained no residuary clause.  After the Will was executed, Ms. Aldrich inherited additional property from her sister, Mary Jane Eaton.  However, Ms. Eaton was the first-named beneficiary of the specific bequests under Ms. Aldrich’s Will.  Although Ms. Aldrich never revised her Will to include the inherited property, she did write a note, which was not executed with the formalities required for a Will, indicating that she wanted all of her possessions to pass to her brother, James Aldrich.  James was the person named in Ann’s Will to receive the enumerated specific bequests in the event the Ms. Eaton predeceased.

Mr. Aldrich argued that his sister intended her entire estate to pass to him, while two of Ms. Aldrich’s nieces from a predeceased brother asserted that the after-inherited property should pass by intestacy, as it was not specifically listed in the Will.  While it is clear in Florida that a Will may operate to pass all of a decedent’s property, regardless of whether the decedent owned such property at the time the Will was made, it is equally clear that a decedent may choose partial intestacy rather than having all property pass by Will.  This case stands in the crosshairs of these two legal certainties.

The Court held that the property inherited after the execution of the Will passed by intestacy rather than to James Aldrich, as the Will contained no ambiguity which would require the Court to look beyond the four corners of the document in construing the terms of the Will.  The Will clearly expressed intent to leave the property listed to Mr. Aldrich, but to construe the Will to express intent to leave anything more to him would be to “rewrite the [W]ill.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Pariente noted that he surmised that the result, though legally correct, did not effectuate Ms. Aldrich’s intent.  Justice Pariente called the case a “cautionary tale” and advised that by hiring a knowledgeable attorney to draft her Will at the outset in lieu of utilizing a pre-printed legal form, Ms. Aldrich would have implemented her intent and avoided costly litigation in her estate, which ultimately cost the estate far more in legal fees than simply having the Will drafted by an attorney.

While form Wills and other estate planning documents are readily available online for purchase, one should keep this cautionary tale in mind and remember that the form available may not fit your individual circumstances nor will it advise of potential pitfalls.  In that regard, there is no substitute for the advice and experience of an attorney.