“I don’t need a lawyer. I don’t have an estate, just have a house and some bank accounts. My family can help me out, and look, here’s a form I found on the internet I can use. What can go wrong?”
Yet time and again, what appears to be a simple and effective way to avoid some legal fees ends up creating a legal quagmire costing tens of thousand of dollars to remedy. Do-it-yourselfers mostly turn to family members or the internet for help. A recent case out of Macomb County Probate Court gives us another example of just how “well” that can turn out:
In mid-2016, Martin met with several members of his family for the purpose of preparing his last will and testament. The meeting was attended by Martin’s brother, John, John’s son Paul, John’s daughter Elise, and Martin’s niece, Theresa.
John downloaded and printed a will form off the internet, and Elise completed the fill-in-the-blank form according to Martin’s instructions. The form provided that all of Martin’s assets were to be distributed equally among Martin’s 3 siblings. The family members also discussed the status of Martin’s bank accounts. After completing the form, the group went to Comerica Bank so Martin could sign the will before a notary. While there, Martin and Theresa also signed new signature cards for each of Martin’s 6 accounts at the bank to give Theresa access to the accounts as the family explained to Martin. Unfortunately, Martin died about 4 months later.
As you may have guessed, a dispute arose after Martin’s death over ownership of the Comerica bank accounts, a dispute which ended up in the Macomb County Probate Court.
At trial, Theresa asserted the funds belonged to her as the surviving joint owner. According to Comerica, signing the new cards by Martin and Theresa established them as joint owners of all 6 accounts (containing about $680,000). Martin’s niece, Elise, now personal representative of Martin’s estate, countered that the funds belonged to the estate for distribution to his siblings per the terms of Martin’s will. Martin had discussed this with the family and that certainly was his understanding and intention when he added Theresa onto the accounts. Following a bench trial, the probate judge sided with Elise that the money belonged to Martin’s estate.
Not satisfied with the probate court loss Theresa appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which again sided with Elise and Martin’s estate. The court opined that although creation of the accounts in Martin and Theresa’s names was prima facia evidence of Martin’s intention to vest title of the accounts in Theresa’s name upon his death, Elise was able to overcome Theresa’s prima facia case that Theresa was entitled to survivor rights to Martin’s accounts. The court noted that Martin did not seek independent counsel and was advised only by his family. Further, the evidence at the trial showed Martin discussed creating “convenience accounts” with his family members and may have mistakenly believed that by adding Theresa as a co-owner, she was only going to be a signer on the accounts, which was consistent with what Martin and his family discussed.
Nothing is simple and straightforward when it comes to estate planning or any other legal matter. You may think you are doing one thing, but the result is something completely unexpected, which can lead to disastrous, and costly, results. (Imagine what it cost in legal fees to settle Martin’s mess.) You should look to family members for a referral, not legal advice. Yes, attorneys cost money, but you are paying for their expertise and advice, which can save you or your family much more in the long run.
Engage knowledgeable legal counsel whatever your problem. Work with an attorney you trust. Don’t be afraid to spend some money up front for good legal advice to save a lot more money later on.
The case is In re Estate of Martin Langer. You can read the full opinion of the Michigan Court of Appeals here.