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Woman's efforts to
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placeholder May 22, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 10   •   Oakland, CA
Remembrance/Estate Planning

Woman's efforts to change will without lawyer backfire

Jeffrey S. Hall

Just as making a will without the help of a qualified attorney can be dangerous, trying to change an existing will on your own can fail as well. A recent court decision in California serves as a cautionary reminder to anyone thinking of altering their estate plan on their own.

In 2006 Barbara Jones executed a will that gave half of her property to a former employee of hers, Laura Clark. Jones' grandson, Thomas Zackery, received a lesser share.

Two years later, in 2008, Jones allegedly attempted to change her 2006 will by marking up a photocopy of it and writing her initials next to each change and signing and dating the bottom of each page. She allegedly wrote on top of the 2008 photocopy, "[t]he Will dated January 19, 2006 is void and to be replace[d] with this and all written in changes."

Among the changes was that Zackery would replace Clark as the beneficiary of half of Jones' estate. In 2010, Jones allegedly attempted to execute another will using a form she obtained online from a popular do-it-yourself television commercial (with pretty actors who aren't lawyers). This document named Zackery as her only beneficiary.

After Jones' death in 2013, the probate court had to decide which of the three wills should be followed. Zackery contended that the 2010 document was a valid will, while Clark argued for the 2006 will. The probate court ruled that the 2008 photocopy and the 2010 downloaded document were invalid because they did not comply with the state's requirements for a valid will, which include that the will must be signed by at least two witnesses. The court held that although Jones probably intended to revoke the 2006 will, she did not do so successfully. Zackery appealed, arguing that Jones clearly intended to revoke the 2006 will and that the 2010 document was valid.

On Aug. 17, 2015, the Court of Appeals of California agreed with the lower court that the 2006 will should be the one admitted to probate. The court ruled that only an original will, not a photocopy, can be revoked. The court also agreed with the lower court that the 2010 document had not been validly executed. This is a common consequence when the public buy legal documents from non-lawyer TV trust-mills, although the actors in their commercials are often very handsome or pretty. At the end of the day, you need a real lawyer.

If Jones did change her mind and decided she wanted her grandson to inherit her estate, the fact that she didn't do it properly meant that far from helping her grandson, she cost him a tidy sum in legal fees.

People change their minds, and circumstances can change as well — marriage, divorce, the birth of children — and estate plans need to be revised along with these changes.

(Make an appointment with estate planning attorney Jeffrey Hall Inc. at 925-230-9002 or go to www.HallLawGroup.com. Hall offers a free 30-minute consultation at either his Pleasant Hill or Benicia office.)

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