Considering creating a do-it-yourself Will to save money? A recent Florida Supreme Court Case, Aldrich v. Basile, should make you reconsider.
In April 2004, Ms. Ann Aldrich (“Ann”) wrote her will on an “E-Z Legal Form.” In Article III, entitled “Bequests,” just after the form’s pre-printed language directing payment of debts, Ann hand wrote instructions directing that all of her “possessions listed” (Ann’s house and contents, a rollover IRA, a life insurance policy, an automobile and certain bank accounts) go to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton. Ann also wrote on the form document that if her sister predeceased her, all such property should go to Ann’s brother, James Michael Aldrich. Containing no other distributive provisions, the Will was duly executed.
Three years later, Ann’s sister died leaving all of her assets to Ann. As a result, Ann inherited cash and her sister’s real estate.
In late 2008, on a sheet of paper with the pre-printed title “Just a Note,” Ann hand wrote the following: “[t]his is an addendum to my will dated April 5, 2004. Since my sister Mary Jean Eaton has passed away, I reiterate that all my worldly possessions pass to my brother James Michael Aldrich . . . .” The addendum was dated November 18, 2008 but it only contained the signature of Ann and one other person. Therefore the document was not an enforceable testamentary instrument under the Probate laws of Florida. Ann then died in 2009.
After Ann’s death, her brother, James Michael Aldrich, was appointed as personal representative of her estate and he sought to have a court determine who would inherit the property that Ann acquired after the execution of the 2004 Will. Ann’s brother argued that he was entitled to all of the property, including the property not listed in the Will, for three reasons: (1) the Will only named Ann’s sister and brother as beneficiaries and disposed of all property owned by the sister at the time of the execution of the Will; (2) Florida Statutes (“F.S.”) § 732.6005(2) provides that a Will shall be construed to pass all property that the testator owned at death, including property acquired after the Will is executed; and (3) there is a legal presumption against construction of a Will that results in partial intestacy. However, Ann’s nieces, heirs of her intestate estate, argued that since the Will contained no mechanism for disposing of the property acquired after the Will was executed, she died intestate as to such property.
Ann’s Will did not contain a residuary clause. There would have been no issue if the Will had contained a residuary clause.
The Supreme Court of Florida reviewed the legislative history of Florida law regarding Wills and after-acquired property. Historically, a Will was ineffective to devise real property in Florida that the testator had no interest in at the time the will was executed. However, upon the effectuation of the Revised Statutes of 1892, any Will containing a residuary clause would be effective to transfer property acquired after the execution of the Will. The current law on this issue, F.S. § 732.6005, reads as follow (emphasis added):
(1) The intention of the testator as expressed in the will controls the legal effect of the testator’s dispositions. The rules of construction expressed in this part shall apply unless a contrary intention is indicated by the will.
(2) Subject to the foregoing, a will is construed to pass all property which the testator owns at death, including property acquired after the execution of the will.
The Court held that the legislative history of F.S. § 732.6005 reveals that it was not meant to change the existing law, and although the statute no longer contained an explicit reference to residuary clauses it was not meant to be a substantial change in the law. The Court also considered how intestacy law related to F.S. § 732.6005 and stated that the legislature did not limit the application of intestacy statutes for estates containing after-acquired property, and therefore, after-acquired property is also subject to the intestacy statute in the event it is “not effectively disposed of by will.”
Although Ann attempted to draft a codicil to address the property she inherited from her sister, the Court could not consider such evidence and look outside of the four corners of the Will because the Will was not ambiguous. The Court held that to distribute the after-acquired property to the brother, it would be in effect a reformation of the Will. The Will expressed no intent as to the property Ann may have acquired after the execution of the Will and it contained no residuary devise. Therefore, the Court held that the after-acquired property would pass to the intestate heirs.
The lessons learned from this case have been summed up appropriate by Justice Pariente, who wrote in his concurring opinion, the following:
I therefore take this opportunity to highlight a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance. As this case illustrates, that decision can ultimately result in the frustration of the testator’s intent, in addition to the payment of extensive attorney’s fees– the precise results the testator sought to avoid in the first place.