Typos, juxtaposed letters, mis-punctuated sentences. If you have ever read the corrections section of a newspaper, you know that no one is infallible. Unfortunately, sometimes the same is true about your attorney. What do you do when your lawyer makes a mistake on your vital documents (pun intended)?
To start off, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Completely filling in your questionnaire(s) will go a long way toward ensuring that your attorney prepares your documents according to your wishes. Additionally, name spellings and addresses are nearly impossible to double check. Giving your attorney complete, legible documents can prevent the attorney from duplicating an error. Secondly, reading your documents, whether it is a V.A. benefits application or a QMap Trust , will verify their accuracy. As with anything, you should not sign something you have not read or do not understand.
But most people do fill in their questionnaires completely and at least scan their documents for superficial errors. Yet, errors appear in documents. Sometimes an error can be costly, like the famous million dollar comma.
Most of the time, the error will not impact the validity of the work. Either way, if you find yourself in the position where you have signed your documents, gone home, read them carefully, and discovered an error, the first step you should take is to call your attorney. Chances are, the mistake was a rare occurrence and the attorney will want to resolve it quickly and efficiently for you. Almost all errors can, and will, be corrected without much fuss.
However, as you probably have guessed by now, this article cannot merely be about comma splices and other grammar technicalities. Sometimes there are larger errors that are, ironically, not as easy to spot such as the case for one of my clients. (I’ve changed the facts a bit to protect everyone’s privacy.) The husband had a separate property trust holding the assets he had coming into the marriage. His intention was to slowly give his wife an increasing portion of his separate property estate upon his death. However, at the time of drafting, he did not want his wife to inherit anything; instead, 100% of the assets in his separate property trust would go to his children from a previous marriage. He told his former attorney that at various points in their marriage he wanted his wife’s share of the inheritance to increase. He believed that these stages were included in the original draft. Now, nearly thirty years later, he is having grandchildren and wanted to add a share for them. In the course of our discussion, we discovered that there was no provision for his wife in his trust. At all. She was never mentioned.
This case is an example of an error that he probably could have recognized if he read and understood his trust at any time in the last thirty years. Additionally, if he was regularly updating his estate planning documents, the error may have been brought to his attention sooner. Finally, depending on the timing of the trust creation, the attorney could have cost either the wife or the children a substantial portion of their inheritance.
The big tip here is to read and make sure you understand the legal documents you are signing. Make sure you have a competent attorney who you feel confident in during your initial interview and who is willing to take the time to explain any questions you have. No one is infallible and sometimes errors are simply that. However, remember that, ultimately, you (in the case of tax filings or benefit applications) or your heirs (in the case of estate planning errors) will suffer the consequences – large, small, and unforeseen – of defective documents.
Estate Planning: The Price of Organization, Rewards, Gifts, and Wondrous Tax Things…
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