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Between a Rock and Hard Place

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Bill Cornwell lived in a Greenwich Village brownstone with his same sex partner for 50 years. When he died two years ago, his will left the building and all of his possessions to his partner. However, the will was only witnessed by one individual while NY law requires two witnesses. Without a valid will, his estate will pass to his closest living relatives who are his nieces and nephews who recently sold the building for $7 million. The partner has since filed suit trying to prove that he and Mr. Cornwell were actually married, although they were not, so he can be considered the closest heir.

So many points and such short attention spans:

1. All wills require two witnesses not related to the individual and who will not receive any assets under the will.

2. Using a DIY will kit could lead to problems with properly executing wills (among other issues)

3. The legal arguments made by the partner verge on stupid. One of them is that even though they lived in NY, which does not recognize common law marriage, they bought a dog in Pennsylvania in 1991 as a symbol of their commitment to each other and because Pennsylvania used to recognize common law marriage they should be considered as married.

4. The 85 year old partner would be better off dropping the law suit and accepting the offer of the nieces and nephews to live in the apartment for 5 years at a monthly rental of $10 and receive $250,000 upon the sale of the building.

5. The entire problem could have been avoided if they had simply married each other once gay marriage became legal.

6. One niece claimed, apparently with a straight face, that her uncle did not want his partner to inherit or he would have properly executed the will. She also suggested that perhaps the men were just friends or great companions. The address of the rock under which she lives is unknown.

Sharia Estate Planning?

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A document purporting to be the will of terrorist Osama Bin Laden was released this week.  The one page handwritten document dates from the late 1990’s.  It was part of a cache of documents retrieved from his compound by Navy SEALs. In it, OBL gave 1% of his estate to one of his henchmen, 1% to another, and directed his family to use the rest of the estate to fund jihad.   No word on what happened to his estate at his death or whether he ever updated his will.

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DIY = Disaster Is Yours

A Minnesota woman signed a will in 2006 naming her grandson and a former employee as equal beneficiaries of her estate.   She tried to revoke the will in 2008 and leave her entire estate to her grandson by writing and initialing several changes on a photocopy of the will.  In 2010, she downloaded a DIY will from a website and hand wrote her intent to leave her entire estate to her grandson, but she did not have it properly witnessed.  She died in 2013 and all 3 wills were presented for probate.  The local probate court held that the 2006 will was still in effect because the 2008 notes on a photocopy did not validly revoke the prior will and that the 2010 downloaded form was not validly executed.

Several quick points:

1.  In Ohio, a will can be revoked with a statement of revocation or physical destruction (i.e. shredding or tearing) of the prior will.

2.  I generally retain the original wills of my clients to prevent them from trying to alter their wills by writing on them.

3.  I will once again quote the mechanic from the ’70’s Fram oil filter commercial (because I am from Greenville, Ohio and we had  a Fram oil filter plant in my long ago youth):  “You can pay me now or pay me later.”  I would have billed her $600 to implement her wishes. Instead, her estate spent thousands and her wishes were not followed because she did not follow the simple formalities for signing a will.  The now long ago former employee is forever grateful for her short sighted thriftiness.

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DIY Wills – Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later

A Florida woman saved money on will preparation by using a DIY service titled E-Z Legal Form.  Her will left all of her listed property to her brother.  The will did not have a residuary clause which states who receives all non-listed assets.   Inevitably, she later opened a new account that was not addressed by the will.  She left a handwritten note in which she tried to  to bequeath the account and all of her “worldly possessions” to her brother except for several accounts she wanted to leave to his daughter.  The note was only witnessed by her brother’s  daughter.  Other nieces claimed that they were entitled to a share of the unlisted account because it was not addressed in the will.  The Florida Supreme Court ruled that they were entitled to a share of the unaddressed account under Florida intestacy laws.

Several points:

1.  All wills need a residuary clause to provide who inherits assets not specifically listed.  In fact, in every will I draft the residuary clause is the most important section.

2.  The decedent would have been better served simply by skipping the listing of specific assets and merely having a residuary clause leaving all of her assets to her brother.

3.  A handwritten note with only one witness who is also a potential beneficiary is invalid on its face and is a worse idea than using a poorly drafted form found on the Internet or purchased at Staples.

4.  As the weary mechanic in the Fram oil filter commercials said after performing an expensive engine repair instead of simply replacing an oil filter, “Pay me now or pay me later.”   This decedent would have been better served spending some money on an attorney ($600 is my standard will and power of attorney fee) instead of trying to save a few dollars while incurring thousands of dollars in legal fees in a futile attempt to have her wishes followed.   Plus, I am much more fun to work with than following, perhaps incorrectly, a few prompts in a software program.

 

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All Posts By Jay Brinker

I am an attorney located in Cincinnati, Ohio who practices in the areas of estate planning, probate, asset protection, and small business advice. I make a difficult and bewildering process as simple as possible. Most importantly, I provide "more for less" for my clients.