The debate started with the completion of an “E-Z Legal Form” by one Florida resident. It ended with a decision from the Florida Supreme Court. What happened in the middle of this estate planning saga might surprise you — and it might convince you to seek professional advice before committing your final wishes to paper.

News reports show that the Florida resident in question penned her initial will on a pre-printed legal form, leaving all of her property to her sister. That form indicated that her brother should receive all of her assets if her sister passed away first. The woman who drafted the will did, in fact, outlive her sister, but she never formally revised her will after receiving inheritance from that woman. Instead, she attached an informal note, or codicil, indicating that her brother was to receive all of her assets, no matter their origin. Sadly, that codicil did not follow Florida statute requiring two witnesses’ signatures.

That situation prompted a debate between the woman’s brother and her nieces, who were also listed in her estate planning documents. Since the woman had not updated her will after receiving an inheritance from her sister, those assets were left in limbo. The nieces argued that the property should enter intestacy and be divided according to Florida law. The brother asserted that he should have had sole ownership of the inheritance assets. The state Supreme Court ultimately determined that the property should be divided among the relatives instead of being transferred to the woman’s brother alone.

This is a classic case of being “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” according to one justice; that is, the decedent chose to pinch pennies by not employing a lawyer during her estate planning process, which left the documents open to will contest. Florida residents who want to distribute their assets in a certain way may benefit from the help of an estate attorney. These professionals may help develop an estate planning strategy that avoids missteps such as that described in this article.

Luis E. Barreto