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    ‘Do-It-Yourself’ Wills and Probate

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    This is the age of ‘do-it-yourself’ and, for good and bad, that also applies to the law. We are occasionally involved in probate matters, if not estate disputes, involving people who did some or all of their wills, trusts, etc.

    Instead of commenting directly, I think this story from a somewhat famous law school case is an appropriate metaphor:

    An eccentric old man lived in Texas, out in the middle of nowhere. He lived on a rundown old farm, hoarder-like, though friends and family knew he had made a small fortune in oil a generation earlier.

    He had been a wildcatter, amassed a fortune on his own, told everyone who had an interest that he was going manage that fortune on his own, disperse it from the grave as he saw fit.

    In short, he did his own estate planning, let it be known that he had a will and was not above changing it if any of his heirs displeased him. Since he lived hundreds of miles from the nearest town, perhaps all this was just his way of making sure he was visited regularly.

    He got sick and died fairly quickly. After his well-attended funeral, his family descended on the farm to search for the will.

    dsf6442-edit1It started out nice and civilized, they looked through the house in all the regular places ~ desk, file cabinets, shoe boxes, cookie tins … nothing.

    It didn’t take them long to decide to dismantle the house. They ripped through the walls, pried up floorboards, dug up the basement, checked the well.

    They brought in bulldozers and started to dig up the yard. They dismantled the barn. Still nothing, 

    They spent weeks in the heat, bitten by fire ants and black flies.  Finally, one of them wandered into a disused chicken coop over a half-mile from the house. There they found a mason jar under the floorboards.

    In the mason jar was a key, obviously to a safety deposit box. It had numbers engraved on it, but no other identifying features.

    The problem now was a daunting one: there were some thirty banks within a three-hundred-mile radius of the ‘ranch’. Nothing in the house gave a clue as to what bank the old man had used. This was before Google, so the only way way to figure it out was to pick a direction, drive to a town, go bank to bank to try and match the key, repeat. That took weeks. At long last, they found the bank that matched the key. It fit, it turned, out slid a good sized box filled with documents, securities, the works.

    On top of it all was a handwritten note on the deceased’s letterhead. It said:

    You will find the key to this safety deposit box

     in a mason jar under the boards of the chicken coop.

    This ‘do-it-yourselfer’ sure meant well, but all his hard work could easily have been for nothing if his family hadn’t been as persistent as they were. The man’s logic was, obviously, more than a little flawed. Which, of course, could and probably did call whatever he he did with his estate into question.

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