When a California resident dies without having created a will, his or her family will have to deal with probate. Probate is a complex legal process through which a deceased person’s debts are paid and assets are distributed. The person’s assets are distributed according to California law when no will exists; when a will does exist, it is vetted before assets can be distributed according to the document.
In some cases problems arise during probate even when a will exists, leading to probate litigation. In order to prevent your will from being tied up–and potentially tossed out–during probate, it is important to craft your will carefully and intentionally under the guidance of skilled legal counsel.
In a recent case, a probate dispute arose involving an “E-Z Legal Form.” Many California residents are drawn to such DIY estate planning tools, and for such individuals this case may be a cautionary tale.
The testator in this case used the E-Z form to leave all of her assets to her sister. In the event that her sister passed away before her, the listed assets would go to her brother. The sister did pass away first, and after this the woman signed a note that said her “worldly possessions” should go to her brother, but some bank accounts should go to his daughter, her niece. The only witness to that signing was the niece.
A state court ruled that the note was not enforceable, and the state’s highest court has now ruled that the money the woman acquired after signing her E-Z will must be distributed under state law. This means some of her assets may be distributed to relatives that she did not name in her will. The court came to this conclusion because the E-Z form did not have a clause that stipulated what should happen to property that was not listed explicitly in the document.
This case is a reminder that estate planning is not as simple as it may seem. If you would like to help ensure that your final wishes will be adhered to, it is important to craft your estate plan with the assistance of an experienced legal professional.
Source: ABA Journal, “Estate dispute caused by ‘E-Z Legal Form’ is a ‘cautionary tale,’ says justice,” Debra Cassens Weiss, April 3, 2014