Category Archives: Administration Expenses

January 20, 2015

Avoidable Litigation as a Threat to the Assets of An Estate

by Carol Warnick

It wasn’t that long ago when the real threat to the financial well-being of a person’s estate was death taxes.  People were concerned about losing close to 50% of their estate to taxes without proper planning.  But with the increased exemption amounts, death taxes are not a big issue in most cases.  But something else is taking its toll on the hope of a smooth and simple passing of assets at death, and that is litigation. 

Much of the current estate litigation relates to family disputes, some of which might have been avoided through better estate planning.  But a certain amount of these family disputes would have occurred anyway simply because the families were upset enough to litigate over anything once mom and dad have passed away.  There is a different type of litigation beginning to crop up, however, that may create just as many problems for an estate as family in-fighting, and one which can be totally prevented.  I am speaking of litigation over wills and trusts drafted with forms obtained over the internet.

Unfortunately, with the increased exemption amounts (currently $5.43 million per person) and since many people no longer need tax planning they are more apt to decide they can do their estate planning documents themselves and not involve an attorney.  While self-drafted wills are not new and have been creating estate administration problems for years, I believe that the current ease of finding forms on the internet, making a few changes, and printing them at home will likely make this a more significant problem in the future. 

Cases are starting to crop up regarding mistakes made by consumers using internet forms.  One Florida case is a good example.  The case is Aldrich v. Basile, 136 So. 3rd, 530 (Fla. 2014).  In this case, Ms. Aldrich used a form and listed all the assets she owned at the time (her home and its contents, an IRA, a car and some bank accounts) and stated they should go to her sister.  If her sister didn’t survive her, she listed her brother as the one to receive everything. 

As luck would have it, her sister predeceased her and left her some additional assets which weren’t listed in Ms. Aldrich’s will because she didn’t own them when she drafted her will.   Either because the internet form didn’t contain one or because Ms. Aldrich took it out when she printed the will because she thought all her assets were covered, there was no residuary clause in the will.  As a result, after a trial court decision, an appellate court reversal, and ultimately an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, it was decided that the listed assets would go per the will but the after-acquired assets inherited from her sister would pass through intestacy, bringing in two nieces who were the daughters of Ms. Aldrich’s deceased brother to share in the estate.

Although the living brother offered a note left by Ms. Aldrich and other extrinsic evidence that Ms. Aldrich intended all of her assets to go to him, the court refused to consider them because of the “four corners” doctrine. There was no ambiguity within the four corners of the will, therefore no extrinsic evidence was admitted.

It is easy to see how Ms. Aldrich could have simply deleted the residuary clause thinking she didn’t need it, but it is very unlikely that a competent lawyer drafting a will would make that mistake.  If the lawyer had made the mistake, there would potentially have been recourse through the lawyer’s malpractice insurance. It seems that the ease of which will and trust forms are now available on the internet and the fact that many people don’t need a lawyer’s expertise for tax planning under current law will combine to create many more of these problems.  Such problems lead to costly litigation with really no recourse for the families of those “do-it-yourselfers.”

Several states have looked at the issue of whether or not legal form providers are violating unauthorized practice of law statutes, but the cases are by no means consistently decided.  While such issues are being sorted out, the old adage “buyer beware” certainly applies with regard to do-it-yourself wills and trusts. 

A concurring opinion in the Florida case summed it up as follows:

Obviously, the cost of drafting a will through the use of a pre-printed form is likely substantially lower than the cost of hiring a knowledgeable lawyer.  However, as illustrated by this case, the ultimate cost of utilizing such a form to draft one’s will has the potential to far surpass the cost of hiring a lawyer at the outset.  In a case such as this, which involved a substantial sum of money, the time, effort, and expense of extensive litigation undertaken in order to prove a testator’s true intent after the testator’s death can necessitate the expenditure of much more substantial amounts in attorney’s fees than was avoided during the testator’s life by the use of a pre-printed form1.


 1Aldrich v. Basile, 136 So. 3rd 530, 538 (Fla. 2014). 

September 3, 2014

Robin Williams Got It Right

by Kelly Cooper

The popular press is always full of cautionary tales about celebrities and their estate plans (see our previous post on Philip Seymour Hoffman).  These stories make it seem that more celebrities get estate planning wrong then get it right.  However, it appears that Robin Williams did take several steps to get his estate plan right before his untimely death. 

Williams created a revocable living trust.  Since trust documents are not part of the public record like a will, we may never know who Williams gave his assets to and how those assets will be handled (in a trust, outright gifts, etc.).  The living trust will help protect Williams’ legacy and his family’s privacy (assuming there is no litigation or disclosure by those with knowledge of the plan).

In addition, living trusts help to avoid probate if they are properly funded.  In California, where Williams lived, the probate process can be expensive due to fees for the attorney and executor that are based on the value of the assets going through probate in addition to appraisal fees and court costs.  If Williams transferred all of his personal assets to the living trust prior to his death, he will have helped to avoid these expenses.

Williams also appears to have created a trust to hold his real estate in California (estimated equity of $25 million) and another trust to benefit his children (value unknown).  While it is not known whether Williams created these trusts to help reduce his estate tax costs, it is possible that he did so.  This uncertainty is because the terms of these trusts remain private.

I hope that Williams’ family benefits from his planning and foresight and that other celebrities take notice.

December 9, 2013

Probate and Trust Issues in Colorado’s Upcoming Legislative Session

by Kelly Cooper

Colorado’s General Assembly will reconvene on January 8, 2014.  At this time, it appears that at least two probate and trust related issues will be the subject of debate by the Assembly.

The first is a proposed change to the Colorado Civil Unions Act that would permit partners to a civil union to file joint income tax returns if they are permitted to do so by federal law.  Under the current proposal being considered by the Colorado Bar Association, there would be changes to both the Civil Unions Act and Colorado’s income tax statutes.  This is partly in response to the issuance of Revenue Ruling 2013-17 by the Internal Revenue Service, which permits married same sex couples to file joint federal income tax returns. 

The second is a proposal to codify a testamentary exception to Colorado’s attorney-client privilege.  The necessity and proposed scope of the testamentary exception are currently being discussed by a subcommittee of the Statutory Revisions Committee of the Trust & Estate Section of the Colorado Bar Association and will likely be discussed later this week at Super Thursday meetings.

The Colorado Supreme Court has previously recognized that the attorney-client privilege generally survives the death of the client to further one of the policies of the attorney-client privilege – to encourage clients to communicate fully and frankly with counsel.  The Colorado Supreme Court has also held that a “testamentary exception” to the privilege exists, which permits an attorney to reveal certain types of communications when there is dispute among the heirs, devisees or other parties who claim by succession from a decedent so that the intent of the decedent can be upheld.

September 24, 2013

Fiduciary Solutions Symposium Recap

by Kelly Cooper

Last week, we held our first Fiduciary Solutions Symposium.  We want to thank each of you that came and participated.  We enjoyed seeing all of you and getting a chance to catch up with you over breakfast.

For those of you that couldn’t attend, here is a brief recap.  When we discussed topics that we wanted to present at the Symposium, we kept coming back to the constantly evolving and changing nature of our practices.  Whether it is taxes, ADR or changes in state laws, things never stay the same.  As a result, we decided to discuss a variety of topics and the trends we are seeing each day in our practices.  It was difficult to narrow down the topics to two hours of content, but we ended up discussing the following issues:

  • Digital Assets
  • Social Media and Use in Litigation
  • Gun trusts
  • Civil Unions/Same Sex Marriage and related tax issues
  • Reformation and modification of trusts and decanting
  • Apportionment and allocation of taxes and expenses in administration
  • Baby boomers and the “Silver Tsunami”
  • Migratory Clients and Differing State Laws
  • Trends in Alternative Dispute Resolution
  • Assisted Reproductive Technology

 We had so much fun that we are taking the show on the road and will be in Salt Lake City on November 12th.  We hope to see you there.