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Per E. Oscarsson
Beresford Booth PLLC
Edmonds, Washington

The internet and television have numerous ads for pre-printed estate planning forms, such as wills, powers of attorney, etc. Sometimes, such forms may be specific to a particular state, sometimes they may not. The selling point of such forms is that you can complete them yourself, often “in the privacy of your own home”, and with less cost than if you were to consult a lawyer. While the lower cost may be true in the short run, it may much more expensive in the long run. Use of the form may also not give you the results you intended. A recent case from Florida is a good example.

A woman used a pre-printed form of will. The form did not include what is known as a “residuary clause”. The residuary clause provides for distribution of whatever property is in the estate that is not specifically mentioned in the rest of the will. The woman’s will form provided for distribution of all “listed” items. Unfortunately for those named in the will to receive property, they were to receive only the “listed” items. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that property the woman acquired after the will was signed should be distributed under the laws of intestacy. The laws of intestacy govern the distribution of property when there is no will. As a result, two nieces of the woman (who had not been named in the will) participated in the distribution of her estate. Given how the woman had completed the will form, this was probably not her intent. The resulting case that eventually made its way to the Florida Supreme Court most likely resulted in significantly more legal costs, for everyone involved, than the woman had ever contemplated in choosing to use the pre-printed form.

In addition to missing substantive provisions such as the residuary clause, the use of pre-printed forms may result in missed planning opportunities that most likely are not obvious by looking at the form, but could come to light during discussion with an estate planning lawyer. The requirements for signing and witnessing a will often vary from state to state. Those requirements may not be clear on the will form or may not appear at all on the will form or in any information that accompanies the form. If those requirements are not met, the will may be invalid and, upon the will signer’s death, the will signer may be treated as if they had died without a will. In that case, they will have lost all control over the distribution of their property; certainly not the result they intended when they signed the will.

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