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 received his summer property in Maryland.
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 that he wrote for himself. And now it will never be known for sure what he wanted, because Zeevering died Aug. 3, 2011.
Diane did get the truck and Wayne did end up with the Maryland summer property. But Zeevering's will failed to specifically describe who should get the remainder of his estate. Judge's call this a "residuary clause." Zeevering'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, Zeevering didn't know that. He wasn't a lawyer and 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 Zeevering. 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 Zeevering'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 Zeevering would have paid to have legal help to write his will.
Even worse, his favored children lost the lawsuit and 60 percent of his estate went to the three children he probably wanted to receive nothing.
That's the big problem with wills - if a mistake is made or one is unclear about something - it's really hard to fix it when the will is read after someone has already died.
Save your family from unnecessary conflicts and expense.
See a lawyer for advice when you are ready to prepare your will.
Marshall is the founding attorney of Marshall, Parker & Weber in Williamsport and Jersey Shore.
He is a certified elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation and specializes in helping seniors plan and pay for long-term care.
Marshall can be reached at 570-321-9008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.