E-Zer Said than Done: Court Considers Will Prepared With Commercially Available Form

By Jacek Stramski

The Supreme Court’s decision in Aldrich v. Basile (SC11-2147), issued last week, provides the latest example of how using a commercial form to prepare a will can turn out to be much more expensive in the long run than enlisting some professional help to do so.

The decedent, Ms. Aldrich, in 2004 executed a will on an “E-Z Legal Form” (you can’t make this up, folks). In the will, Ms. Aldrich stated that specific property of hers, including her house, car, bank accounts and life insurance, be distributed to her sister, Ms. Eaton. Ms. Aldrich provided in the will that if her sister should predecease her, then all of her listed property should be left to her brother, Mr. Aldrich. The will did not have a residuary clause that would apply to any property not listed in the will.

Inevitably, the sister predeceased Ms. Aldrich and left her property to Ms. Aldrich. Ms. Aldrich placed the property in a new account that she opened up for the purpose of keeping the newly inherited money. When Ms. Aldrich passed in turn, Mr. Aldrich was appointed personal representative of her estate. Two of Ms. Aldrich’s nieces asserted an interest in the probate action, stating that part of the estate was subject to intestate succession (a set of default rules of inheritance that apply to a deceased person’s property not subject to a will).

Mr. Aldrich initiated an adversary proceeding, arguing that Ms. Aldrich intended her entire estate to pass to him. In support, he pointed out that only he and the sister were listed in the will, that section 732.6005(2), Fla. Stat., provides that a will shall be construed to pass all property owned by the testator at death, and that Florida applies legal presumptions against interpreting wills to result in partial intestacy. The trial court held in favor of the nieces, finding that the lack of general devises and a lack of a residuary clause in the will meant that the property acquired by Ms. Aldrich after the execution of her will was not disposed of by the will, and would pass through intestacy. The First District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, finding that the intent of the deceased expressed in the will indicated that her property should pass to her brother.

On appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the property acquired by Ms. Aldrich after her will was executed was not subject to the will. The Court noted that the intention of a testator as expressed in the will does control the disposition of the testator’s property, but only to the extent specified in the will. The Court pointed out that section 732.101, Fla. Stat., which provides that any part of an estate that is not disposed of by will is subject to intestacy, was not limited for estates containing after-acquired property. The fact that Ms. Aldrich kept a hand-written note with her will, drafted after the death of Ms. Aldrich’s sister, which would grant all her property to her brother, was not relevant as that note was not executed in accordance with the requirements of the Florida Probate Code.

Justice Pariente filed a concurring opinion, in which she stated that this case reminded her of the phrase “penny-wise and pound-follish,” and lamented the lack of foresight of Ms. Aldrich in “using a commercially available form, an “E-Z Legal Form,” which did not adequately address her specific needs—apparently without obtaining any legal assistance.” A worthwhile lesson for all.

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