Three weeks into my career as an attorney, my first probate client walked into my office wanting to probate the Will of her deceased friend. When I looked at the Will, I immediately knew that we were going to have problems, and in fact, the probate of that Estate was the longest-lasting probate case of my career.
The Will was not a well-drafted Will prepared by an attorney. Rather, it was a “do-it-yourself” Will-maker computer Will that the Decedent had prepared for himself. In the 10 years since that first client came in, I have been reminded over and over again the myriad problems that arise when someone goes to the Internet for legal advice rather than consulting an attorney.
In my experience, most people look to the internet and to Will-maker kits because they think that it will be less expensive and easier than going to an attorney. Unfortunately, because of the problems that generally arise with these Wills, what was intended to be a cost-savings measure generally results in increased hassle and expense to the client.
Will kits that are found either on the internet or in office supply stores are generally not “state-specific”. In other words, they are drafted so that they will try to comply with the laws of the majority of the states in the U.S. However, each state has its own specific requirements for what makes a Will valid. In Texas, for instance, specific language must be included in the Will to allow the Court to appoint an Executor as the “independent” executor. This important language makes the probate process in Texas much easier and less costly. Without the correct language, the family is going to end up expending considerable unnecessary time and expense in seeing the Will through probate.
The other big problem that we have seen with these do-it-yourself Wills is the fact that the person creating the Will likely does not completely understand the decisions that they are making in the Will. As a result, we have seen several cases where the Decedent said one thing in the Will, but the entire family agrees that the Decedent actually intended something other than what was said. These confusions occur because the Decedent did not understand how to accurately express his wishes in the Will, and in many cases, these confusions either create hard feelings among the family or end up producing litigation because the family is not satisfied with the likely unintended expressions of the Will.
In another case, the Decedent purportedly downloaded a Will form from the internet, and his wife believed that he had signed the form. However, she could only find the blank, unsigned copy after his death. When she came to my office, she could see no reason why she could not probate the unsigned copy of the Will since it was the copy that her husband had downloaded from the internet. Had she and her husband sought competent legal advice prior to her husband’s death, they would have found out that the copy of the Will was going to be invalid for disposing of the Estate. In the end, she ended up having to expend much more time and incurred significant expense in the probate of the Estate, when it would have cost much less had they sought legal advice in advance.
In the year 1712, English poet Joseph Addison coined the phrase “a penny wise and a pound foolish” to describe someone who refuses to make a small investment on important items, instead choosing to unwisely spend large sums on unimportant things. Like the objects of Addison’s description, choosing to consult the internet for legal advice rather than employing a competent attorney generally marks unwise short-term savings that will likely produce long-term hassle and expense.
Don D. Ford III is the Managing Partner of Ford+Bergner LLP, a boutique Estate Planning, Probate and Guardianship law firm serving Texas from offices in Houston and Dallas.
Our Houston office conveniently serves our clients in Harris, Montgomery, and Fort Bend counties, while our Dallas office serves clients in Dallas, Tarrant, Denton, and Collin counties.