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The Risks of Do-It-Yourself Wills: A Real-Life Example

Posted February 24, 2016 in Blog

Unfortunately, while many companies offer cheap, “self-help” legal software, few people realize that using a computer program to prepare their wills and other estate planning documents greatly increases the risk of fraud. When people use computer-generated forms to prepare wills, their heirs often end up paying lawyers to help resolve disputes and to interpret documents that may not reflect their true intent.        

Here is a story that illustrates the risks of a do-it-yourself will. It is a true story, handled by a partner in our firm, Lacy M. Presnell III – one of our Raleigh estate litigation attorneys.

An 87-Year-Old Man’s Stepdaughter is Defrauded out of Her Inheritance

The client’s stepfather was an 87-year-old man who had lived alone since his wife’s death more than 20 years earlier. He maintained regular telephone contact with his only stepdaughter, who lived out of state. Due to her health problems, his stepdaughter visited him approximately once a year.

While living alone, the stepfather enjoyed the company of a female companion who we will call, “Edith.” As the stepfather’s health failed, Edith would frequently come to his house, cook meals and care for him. Edith also had a son who is a computer programmer.

In the past, the stepfather had worked with a local family attorney to develop an estate plan and prepare a couple of wills. However, eventually, he decided to make a new will that would leave half of his estate to Edith and the other half to his stepdaughter. The stepfather was a frugal person and he had amassed an estate that included cash and real property valued in excess of $500,000.

Prior to meeting with his attorney, the stepfather learned that Edith’s son had purchased a computer program to create wills. Rather than calling his attorney, the stepfather allowed Edith’s son to help him prepare a will. Edith’s son took the stepfather’s information and created a will, leaving half of the stepfather’s estate to Edith and half to the stepdaughter. Edith then called a friend who was a notary public and the friend and some of Edith’s relatives witnessed the stepfather signing the will.

At some point before or after the stepfather’s death (but before his will was submitted to the clerk’s office for probate), someone used the computer program to create a new first page to his will. The new front page left the stepfather’s entire estate to Edith, with only $1.00 going to his stepdaughter. The intent was clear: Someone had changed the stepfather’s will to defraud his stepdaughter of her share of his estate.

Burns, Day & Presnell, P.A. Investigation Uncovers Fraud

After the stepfather died and his stepdaughter found out about the will, she felt something was wrong. However, she had no idea what had occurred until she received an anonymous telephone call telling her something was wrong with the will. She subsequently contacted a lawyer who then associated Burns, Day & Presnell, P.A. partner, Lacy M. Presnell III to investigate this situation.

This is what he uncovered:

  • Edith told the notary public and others when the stepfather signed the will that she was receiving half of his estate.
  • Edith’s son used a center alignment for the will, so that it was very easy to change the wording on the first page without creating an awkward transition to the second page, which might have occurred if a left margin alignment had been used.
  • Someone had folded the stepfather’s will in thirds, creating horizontal creases at two places on the will. However, when the will was filed with the court, the first page (and only the first page) had a single vertical crease. The first page also had just one staple hole, while the rest of the pages had more than one staple hole.

We assisted the stepdaughter in filing a caveat to the will. Edith testified at length in a deposition, but died during the pendency of the caveat proceeding. When confronted with the overwhelming evidence, her son decided to settle the case.

Lessons Learned: Be Wary of Do-It-Yourself Wills

Unfortunately, we don't know what motivated the stepfather to allow Edith’s son to prepare his will or whether his frugality and interest in saving money contributed to this decision in any way. However, what we do know is that the entire mess could have been avoided if the stepfather had simply contacted his attorney to update his will instead of relying on do-it-yourself software.

Burns, Day & Presnell, P.A. | Estate Planning Attorneys in Raleigh, NC

If you believe you need a lawyer to review your estate plan, we encourage you to consult with our estate planning litigation lawyers. In addition, should you find yourself in a position where it may be necessary to challenge or defend the estate planning documents, we encourage you to consult with our estate litigation lawyers. To schedule a consultation, call our offices at (919) 782-1441 or contact us online today.