When Marc MacGinnis was in the hospital awaiting surgery, he asked his friend Brent to prepare a will for him that would leave half of his estate to Brent and half to Marc’s sister, Susan. Brent downloaded some will forms from the Internet, but Susan then suggested that she contact a lawyer to set up a trust instead. She said this would be better because it would avoid probate.
Susan never talked to a lawyer, and Marc died a few days after the surgery. Because Marc never signed a will, his entire $1 million estate went to Susan.
Brent then filed a lawsuit against Susan. He claimed that Susan knew there was a good chance Marc wouldn’t survive the surgery, because the doctors had told her so. (They didn’t tell Brent because he wasn’t a relative.) He also claimed that Susan deliberately lied about talking to a lawyer, because she knew that if Marc didn’t sign a will before he died, she would inherit the entire estate.
A judge initially sided with Susan, but on appeal, the California Court of Appeal sided with Brent and said he could take his case to trial.
It’s still not clear who will ultimately win, but one thing is clear – whatever the outcome, a significant part of Marc’s assets will go toward the cost of litigation.
The case is a good reminder of the importance of speaking to an estate planner now, rather than waiting until something happens or relying on the highly unreliable forms that are found on the Internet. If Marc had spent a short time with an estate planner, he would not only have avoided a nasty lawsuit between his intended heirs, but he would probably have been able to keep his estate out of probate and find other ways to maximize the benefits to the people he cared about.