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Don’t Try This at Home: Do-It-Yourself Wills are Dangerous

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In September, the Pennsylvania Superior Court decided the appeal of Wayne Zeevering in a case involving a do-it yourself will. The appeals court upheld a lower court decision that required Wayne and his sister Diane to share their father’s residuary estate with their siblings.

The court required distribution to all five of George Zeevering’s children even though his will specifically said that he had intentionally failed to provide any distribution for three of them.

The court found that the father’s intentions were unclear since the will failed to include a clause disposing of the residuary estate. (The residuary estate is what is left over after all specifically gifted items have been distributed and estate expenses have been paid). As a result, the residuary estate ($217,000) was to be distributed in accordance with intestate laws (as if the father had died without a will.) In this case, the intestate laws provided for equal distribution to all of the children.

The Zeevering case illustrates the dangers of trying to do your will yourself, without competent legal advice.

Wayne’s father thought he could prepare an adequate will for himself, without getting help from a lawyer. But, “he didn’t know what he didn’t know.” He didn’t know his will should include a residuary estate clause.

The consequences of this mistake were terrible. Much of the father’s estate ended up being distributed to the children he was probably trying to disinherit. Perhaps even worse, his favored son Wayne was forced into costly litigation against his siblings.

In my over thirty years of practice as an estate planning lawyers, I have seen lots of do-it-yourself wills. These self-prepared wills almost always have contained significant holes or errors. An estate planning lawyer will know the right questions to ask, how to properly implement your intentions, and how to limit the potential for later family discord and litigation.

The Superior Court decision is Estate of Zeevering, 2013 PA Super 260 (Sept 26, 2013), http://tinyurl.com/km6qrs3.

Here is a previous article that I wrote about this sad Zeevering case after the lower court had first issued its opinion but before the appeals court ruling.

Case Illustrates Dangers of Do It Yourself Wills

George Zeevering probably thought he could save some money by writing his own will without getting the advice of a lawyer.

It seemed simple enough. He had five children but was close to only two of them, his son Wayne and his daughter Diane. He wanted to be sure that Diane got his red pick-up truck, so he put that in his self-drafted will. He also wanted to make sure that Wayne got his summer property in Maryland, so he put that down as well.

Apparently he didn’t want anything to go to his other three children so he wrote the following sentence in his will: “The failure of this will to provide any distribution to my children, Laura Bonner, Kathleen Archacki, and Jennifer Rios is intentional.”

More likely than not, this meant he wanted the rest of his estate (worth $217,000) to go to his favored children, Wayne and Diane. But he didn’t specifically say that in the will he wrote for himself. And now we will never know for sure what he wanted, because Mr. Zeevering died on August 3, 2011.

Diane did get the truck. And Wayne did end up with the Maryland summer property. But George’s will failed to specifically describe who should get the remainder of his estate. Judge’s call this a “residuary clause.” George’s will didn’t have one.

When there is no residuary clause, the undesignated portion of the estate goes according to the laws of intestacy. Those are the state laws that say who inherits from you if you didn’t leave an adequate will, trust, or other instructions. In George’s case, the Pennsylvania intestate laws say that his remaining estate should go equally to all five of his children.

Of course George didn’t know that. He wasn’t a lawyer. He probably thought that the remainder of his estate would go to Wayne and Diane. But the law can be very demanding. It contains traps for unwary people like George. He made a mistake that anyone could make. And his children Wayne and Diane ended up paying for it.

Now it’s bad enough that George’s carelessness in writing his own will meant that all of his children ended up in a lawsuit. And that the lawyer’s fees were many times more than George would have paid to have legal help to write his will.

Even worse, his favored children lost the lawsuit, and 60% of his estate went to the three children he probably wanted to get nothing. That’s the big problem with wills – if you make a mistake, or are unclear about something – it’s really hard to fix it when your will is read after you are dead.

Don’t be penny wise and dollar foolish. Don’t create a mess for your family as you leave this life behind. Save your family from unnecessary conflicts and expense. See a lawyer for advice when you are ready to prepare your will.

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