Being “Penny Wise and Pound Foolish” is a cliché that dates back to 1712 when Joseph Addison first printed the phrase in The Spectator. Truer words have never been spoken when it comes to one’s legal needs.
We have all seen them at our favorite office supply store, found samples on the internet, and seen O.J Simpson’s criminal attorney, Robert Shapiro, serve as a spokesman for such services. However, the fact is that “cheap” legal fixes like a fill-in-the blank will, power of attorney, lease, contract, or a vast array of other legal documents cannot replace legal advice. The ABA (American Bar Association) Journal reported a story about a case decided by Florida Supreme Court’s Decision. (Weiss, Debra Cassens “Estate Dispute Caused by ‘E-Z Legal Form’ is a ‘Cautionary Tale,’ says Justice”, ABA Journal, Apr. 3, 2014).
In the Florida case, a woman used an “E-Z Legal Form” to write her will in 2004. She listed property that was to go to her brother. The will did not include what is legally known as a “residuary clause”. A residuary clause states that absolutely anything that you own at the time of your death that has not been specifically given to a certain person goes to this latter person. In essence, it is the “catch all” in case you have forgotten to give something away. Well, this Florida woman never named the “catch all” person to take what was left. What was left amounted to thousands of dollars in bank accounts. As a result, the court ruled that the state’s laws of intestacy dictated who should receive these accounts and not the will. Intestacy laws in each state say that if you do not have a will, the law will presume for you who should receive your property. Since the woman in question here had no children and she had nieces and nephews by other siblings than the one listed in her will, those other nieces and nephews got a piece of her estate. Was that really what she wanted?
The answer is likely “No”. Further, the woman tried to fix this issue before her death. She made a handwritten note that she had witnessed by one person saying “all of her worldly possessions should go to her brother”. To be a valid will, one witness is insufficient under Florida (and Illinois) law.
This woman tried to do her own will and estate planning cheaply. The result is that her intentions were not fulfilled. A few hundred dollars to hire an attorney would have prevented this.
I have seen this in my own practice on several occasions. I have seen Powers of Attorney signed using a “kit” off of the internet or an office supply store that are insufficient under Illinois law. The only fix is to have a new one signed under the supervision of an attorney or to obtain guardianship of the person through the court if the person is no longer competent to sign.
I have also seen Medicaid planning be done by simply “giving away ownership of one’s home” to children without consulting an attorney about the repercussions if the person needs to go to a nursing home. Further, I have seen folks rely upon the assistance of a nursing home to file a Medicaid application after Medicaid planning was done with an attorney because “the attorney is expensive and the nursing home will do it for free”. (Remember, the nursing home is happy to do it to make sure they get paid. Nursing homes are not lawyers trained on the latest Medicaid rules and guidelines). I have had to work to fix the misinformation that the nursing home reported on the application.
Remember, fixing something after the fact is almost always more expensive than having it done correctly the first time. Would you try to do your own electrical work or car repairs if you have no experience with it?
Take the Florida Supreme Court’s advice. Don’t be “penny wise and pound foolish” when it comes to your own legal needs. Consult with a licensed attorney.
Attorney DelGiorno concentrates his practice in elder law, Medicaid planning, probate, estate planning, and guardianships. He can be reached at the firm’s Springfield office at 217-522-6000. Visit the firm’s website at www.rblawyers.net.