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Tax Law Blog: DIY Will is a 'Cautionary Tale' - April 7, 2014

Jana Luttenegger Weiler

The Florida Supreme Court Case of Aldrich v. Basile may serve as a cautionary story that online pre-printed forms that allow a user to essentially fill in the blank may not address the specific needs of the individuals using the form. In Aldrich, Ann had used an online form to draft her own will. Following her death, the Florida courts found a problem with the will. Though the will left specific property to specific people, the will did not have a residual clause to account for any property acquired after the will was signed.  In the case, Ann's sister died before Ann, leaving Ann additional cash and property that was not discussed in Ann's will. Ann attempted at one point to make an addition to her will, but failed to follow state law, therefore the change was not valid. As a result, two of Ann's nieces received property that it appears clearly from the will and attempted amendment was meant for Ann's brother instead. 

Justice Pariente concurs that the case reached the correct result, though the outcome does not follow Ann's true intent. Justice Pariente describes this case as "a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance." Presumably Ann used the online form to avoid the cost of consulting a professional, but unfortunately much more money was ultimately spent on attorney fees to interpret the will after her death. 

It could be the case that the form itself is not the problem, rather the problem is in how the user completes the form, or in the execution of the document. Wills in particular require a specific execution process which can vary from state to state. Additionally, states have many types of laws that may or may not be addressed in the form. For example, Iowa imposes inheritance tax on property passing to certain individuals. As one commentator suggested, if the do-it-yourselfer doesn't know the inheritance tax laws or what a residual clause is, a will may not be the best DIY task.   The same could be said for many other types of online legal forms. Ann's case is certainly not the only DIY legal form that has gone wrong, but it can serve as a lesson.