There are some areas where you definitely do not want to make a decision based just on what’s cheapest. Would you pick a doctor to treat a serious condition because he was the cheapest one you could find?
Probably not. As a pilot, I don’t necessarily choose the cheapest aircraft parts when maintenance is required. Sure, price is a factor, but quality is primary. My life, and the livers of my passengers, might depend on it.
People rarely die as a result of using a cheap lawyer, but making a decision about your legal affairs based only on cost can have serious consequences that last beyond your lifetime.
Last month the Florida Supreme Court considered a case where someone, looking to save money, used a commercially available, “off the shelf”, self-help legal form to prepare her own will. Predictably enough, she ended up with a will that looked good to her, but did not say what she intended it to say. She died, never knowing the difference, and her family was left to deal with the consequences.
When we prepare a will in my office, we make sure that the will contains a “residuary” clause. This is a section where the person making the will determines what happens to any property not specifically disposed of otherwise. A typical will look something like this: “I give my house to Alice. I give my record collection to Bill. All the rest of my estate I give to X, Y and Z in equal shares.” There is more to a will, but the main thing is to say who gets what.
In the Florida case, the deceased person made some specific provisions about different things she owned, but there was no residuary clause in her self-prepared will. So when she died, there was a disagreement among her family members about who would get property she owned that was not specifically mentioned in the will.
The dispute ended up in court, where some family members tried to argue about their dead relative’s true intentions were. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the unmentioned property was not covered by the will, and the people who might have been the intended recipients of the property were out of luck.
So what happened to the unmentioned property? Every state has rules that operate as set of default provisions concerning who gets your stuff when you leave this world. These rules are generally known as the laws of “intestacy”. (The word is derived from “testify” or “testament”, as in “last will and testament”.)
A competent attorney would have spotted the flaw in the self-help will immediately. Instead of getting professional advice, however, this person went the cheap route, and as a result, the people she probably did want to inherit her property were left out, and other people – relatives she probably did not want to reward – got a windfall.
Although this case happened in Florida, the same rules apply in New York. So the next time you have a situation that might have legal consequences, remember that in the world of law – as in medicine and aviation, and everything else – you get what you pay for.