Not all Texas folks consult an attorney to prepare a will or to review an oil and gas lease or a pipeline easement they have been offered. Maybe they think lawyers are expensive and only for the wealthy or maybe they don't want to take the time. Fortunately, there are affordable attorneys for virtually all situations, including those who review oil and gas leases. In fact, there are instances where it is critically important to consult a lawyer, and the legal fee for a specific service is often a fraction of what people end up losing by signing boilerplate legal documents without understanding the the documents or the implications those documents may have for their family’s future.
A recent case from Florida highlighted this problem. The case is James Michael Aldrich vs. Laurie Basile et al from the Supreme Court of Florida. The case involved the will of Ann Aldrich. In 2004, she made a will using an “E-Z Legal Form”. The will left her property to her sister, and if her sister died before Ann did, then to her brother. Ms. Aldrich’s sister died first, so her brother was the sole heir to her estate according to the will. However, this “E-Z Legal Form” didn’t have a residuary clause. Ms. Aldrich also left a written note after her sister died leaving her possessions to her brother, except for certain bank accounts that were to be left to this brother’s daughter. But the document only had one witness, which made it invalid as a will under Florida law.
When Ms. Aldrich died, two nieces sued to receive part of the estate. These nieces were the daughters of a different brother of Ms. Aldrich, who had also already died before Ms. Aldrich. Even though these two nieces are not mentioned anywhere in the will, the Florida Supreme Court decided in their favor in a decision written by Justice Peggy Quince. Since the “E-Z Legal Form” did not have a residuary clause, Ms. Aldrich only intended for the property specifically mentioned in the will to be distributed. The Court found that all other assets, such as money acquired after the will was signed in 2004, had to be distributed under the laws of intestacy, which is the law that covers the distribution of property of someone who does not have a will.
Justice Barbara Pariente concurred, and discussed Ms. Aldrich’s will as a cautionary tale. She wrote: “While I appreciate that there are many individuals in this state who might have difficulty affording a lawyer, this case does remind me of the old adage ‘penny-wise and pound-foolish.’” She went on to say that “(a)s this case illustrates, that decision can ultimately result in the frustration of the testator’s intent, in addition to the payment of extensive attorney’s fees—the precise results the testator sought to avoid in the first place.”
This cautionary tale involves a will, but people call me all the time about oil and gas leases they have signed without consulting a lawyer, or even reading it themselves, and then are dismayed to learn how much money they’ve lost or that their land is damaged by oil and gas operations that are authorized by the lease. For important legal documents, having an attorney review it is not expensive, may save you significant money, and may spare you future heartache.
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