Dear Mr. Premack: I am finally convinced that it is time to make a
Will, just for my own peace of mind. I am thinking about writing it for
myself, or maybe using an online service. Actually, one of the online
services I checked is mostly do-it-yourself anyway. They ask how I want
assets divided, and I submit the words for them to include in the Will. I
know you are a lawyer and are biased toward telling me to hire a lawyer
for this, and I’m willing to be persuaded. Why should I have a lawyer
instead of writing a Will for myself? – P.H.
A challenge! You bet
I’m biased, but it is for good reasons. I write Wills all week long, and
have helped many families with unbelievably different goals and
strategies. They know exactly what they want to accomplish and know
nothing about the legalities of reaching those goals, and need experienced
assistance. I’ve seen Wills prepared online containing terrible mistakes
and oversights, foisted on trusting consumers who don’t know that online
sites fail to provide legal counsel. I also handle estates for decedents
who never got around to making a Will, and have seen the unnecessary pain,
cost and uncertainty suffered by the survivors. Experience yells for you
avoid doing it yourself and online Wills, and to rely on a trained legal
Here is an example, from a case that was recently
decided on appeal to the 13th District Court of Appeals, which covers the
Corpus Christi and Valley areas. A gentleman named Ken Walker wrote his
own Will. He was married to Lucy, his second wife. He had a son, Greg,
from his first marriage. Ken owned a home, a truck and some guns.
In his Will, Ken wrote “I leave my house... to my wife, Lucy…. If Lucy… no
longer wishes to preside on this property, she is to sell houses and
property to my son, Greg… at a fair price. If Lucy… deceases while
residing at this property, property and houses go to my son, Greg”.
Ignoring Ken’s typos, the first part looks like he leaves the house to
Lucy. That is how she read the Will, and what she wanted. Greg did not
look at it that way. He thought that the last part (“If Lucy deceases
while residing at this property”) meant that he had some rights, too.
They argued over the meaning of Ken’s words and landed in court. The trial
court decided that Ken had been ambiguous. The court decided Ken intended
to leave the house to Lucy only for the term of her life, and that when
she died it automatically became Greg’s property. She could not leave it
to her own heirs, and could not sell it and keep the money. Lucy hoped the
trial court was wrong and appealed the decision.
Lucy lost in the
appeal court, too. The court affirmed the decision that Ken’s words mean
Lucy gets a life estate in the house, with the remainder interest passing
to Greg. Is this what Ken wanted? We don’t know what he thought, only what
he wrote. And because he wrote the Will himself, his choice of words was
ambiguous so the court had to impose its legal interpretation.
How much money did the trial and appeal consume? Considering that a lawyer
would have charged Ken somewhere around $500 for a Will – and that the
lawyer prepared Will would have clearly stated Ken’s intentions, thus
avoiding litigation – we can conclude that Ken’s do-in-yourself efforts
ended up costing far more than he would have paid for professional legal
So reason #1 for hiring a lawyer to write your Will: it
is less expensive to do-it-right than to do-it-yourself or online
Next week: some additional convincing reasons to
do-it-right with professional legal advice.