Just a Note: Make Sure an Estate Plan is Legally Effective

April 10, 2014

One of the misconceptions that people can have about estate planning is that all they need to do is write down what their wishes are. However, the act of writing down what should happen to a person’s assets is generally not enough to be effective, as it may not be legally binding in California.

For instance, a person may suddenly fall ill and write down on a piece of paper that all possessions should go to a son or daughter. When that person passes away, that piece of paper may not do anything to guarantee that those wishes will be respected, even if that’s exactly what the person wanted. This is because other people may have some very legitimate concerns about where that piece of paper came from and the conditions under which it was drawn up.

For example, a woman had drawn up her will in 2004. In 2008, a year before she passed away, she wrote an addendum to her will on a piece of paper titled “Just a Note” that she and her niece signed. The addendum was added in order to account for assets she had received after her sister had passed away and to name her niece as her representative.

However, there were no other witnesses to the signing of the document. It is not known what her mental capacity was at the time the addendum was added, and the addendum did not express her intent with legally effective language. Therefore, a court had to make a ruling that contradicted the woman’s intentions expressed in the addendum.

It is one thing to express your wishes in writing, but it is another to do so in a way that is effective. Estate planning documents, including wills and powers of attorney, must be legally enforceable in order to be effective. That is why it can be crucial to work with a lawyer during the estate planning process. Seeking legal support can give people the peace of mind of knowing that their wishes will be respected and their estate will be passed to the appropriate parties.

Source: Forbes, “Careful, Thoughtful Drafting Essential In Estate Planning,” Stephen J. Dunn, April 7, 2014

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