“Penny-wise and pound-foolish” is the term used by a Florida Supreme Court Justice in a recent case, Aldrich v. Basile, to describe the person whose estate was the subject of the case, an individual who drafted her own Will using an Internet-purchased form. Ms. Aldrich likely used a pre-printed form Will in an effort to avoid the cost of using a knowledgeable estate planning attorney, which disastrously resulted in tremendous legal and court fees for her estate and family members.

The legal decision about who would inherit Ms. Aldrich’s property was appealed twice, ultimately being decided by the highest state court in Florida with a holding that one of the Justices deemed “unfortunate,” especially since the ultimate result was likely not at all what Ms. Aldrich intended. Justice Pariente, in her concurring opinion, wrote, “This unfortunate result stems not from this Court’s interpretation of Florida’s probate law, but from the fact that Ms. Aldrich wrote her Will using a commercially available form, an ‘E-Z Legal Form,’ which did not adequately address her specific needs – apparently without obtaining any legal assistance.”

The specific facts of the case merit further discussion. In 2004, Ms. Ann Aldrich handwrote and duly executed her preprinted form Will (E-Z Legal Form), in which she directed that specific possessions, including her house and its contents (specific address was listed), United Defense Life Insurance, Fidelity IRA (specific account number was listed), Chevy Tracker (VIN listed) and all bank accounts at M & S Bank (specific account numbers listed), would go to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton. Her Will further provided that if such sister predeceased her, all listed assets would go to her brother, James Michael Aldrich. The Will failed to include a residuary clause to address any property Ms. Aldrich may own at her death.

Three years later, Ms. Aldrich’s sister died, and left cash and real estate to Ms. Aldrich, who deposited her inheritance in an account she opened at Fidelity Investments. Then, two years later, Ms. Aldrich passed away, never having revised her Will to address the additional assets that she acquired from her sister’s estate.

Because Ms. Aldrich’s Will did not contain a residuary clause, litigation ensued to determine whether the after-acquired property (including the inheritance from Ms. Eaton), would be distributed to Mr. Aldrich (Ms. Aldrich’s brother) or whether such assets would be considered intestate property (i.e. property not properly disposed of by the Will, and thus, distributable to Ms. Aldrich’s heirs at law as determined by Florida’s Probate Code). If the after-acquired property was deemed to pass by intestacy, a significant portion would be distributed to Ms. Aldrich’s two nieces from a predeceased brother, Laurie Basile and Leanne Krajewski.

Interestingly, Ms. Aldrich apparently attempted to draft a codicil (i.e. amendment) to her Will. A note dated Nov. 18, 2008, was found with the Will, which said “this 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…” Although she signed the “addendum,” there was only one other signature on the note; therefore, the note was not a valid “Will” or “codicil” under Florida law.

The trial court found in favor of Mr. Aldrich, but the nieces appealed and the First District Court of Appeals reversed the decision and held in favor of the nieces. The Florida Supreme Court agreed, finding that because there was no unambiguous language in the Will, extrinsic evidence of Ms. Aldrich’s intent (as evidenced by her “addendum”) could not be considered; therefore, any assets not specifically included in the Will would pass according to Florida’s intestate laws.

Lessons to be learned from this case:

  • Use a knowledgeable attorney to draft your estate planning documents. These legal instruments impact significant amounts of wealth and should not be attempted without the help of competent advisors. Too much is at stake for the process to be handled by amateurs or web-based forms. Had Ms. Aldrich’s Will been properly drafted, it is likely that the costly and time-consuming litigation could have been avoided.
  • This case also highlights the importance of proper document execution as Ms. Aldrich’s handwritten note, which she thought to be an amendment to her Will, had it been executed with the proper formalities of Florida law, would have allowed her brother to be the sole heir of her estate as she apparently intended. Because the note was only witnessed by one person, it was not a valid amendment to her Will and Ms. Aldrich’s intent was thwarted.