How to Get a Fill-in-the-Blank Will

Do they really work? How do I get my hands on one?

Those were some of the many questions readers asked after last week's column on the California Statutory Will, the fill-in-the-blanks form that you can use without hiring a lawyer.

The second question is easily answered. Stores that sell stationery, office supplies and legal forms (such as leases or promissory notes) usually stock two versions of the statutory will. If you can't find one in a local store, Wolcott's, in downtown Los Angeles, has them.

Or, even easier, you can buy one through the mail from the State Bar of California. Send $1, plus a self-addressed, business-size envelope with 39 cents of postage, to: State Bar of California, Wills, P.O. Box 411, San Francisco, 94101

The answer to the first question--do they work?--is more complicated. They work; that is, they are accepted by the probate court, if they are filled in properly. But even with all the i's dotted and the t's crossed, the form may not be the best option for those who, under the advice of a lawyer, need more choices than the form offers.

It is also difficult to determine if the forms actually work as intended. There are no statistics on how many are rejected in probate court, or how many have actually been completed.

But there seems to be a great deal of consumer interest in the forms. In 1983, the first year they were available, the State Bar sold 175,000 copies. And after an earlier Legal View column that explained how to order the form, the State Bar received 2,000 requests in one week. (California was the first state to create a statutory will; they were introduced in 1925 in England, where they have not been especially popular.)

Some lawyers and probate experts raise concerns that the forms are too difficult to complete.

Barbara J. Miller, an Alameda County Court commissioner, last year told California Lawyer magazine that most statutory wills in her jurisdiction were not completed correctly.

On the other hand, Gerry W. Beyer, a law professor at St. Mary's University of San Antonio, Tex., and author of a comprehensive law review article on the subject, could not find any appellate decisions in California involving the statutory will. That could indicate that rejected wills are not a serious problem and that family members are not taking their fight beyond trial court in the event of a rejection. Or it could simply mean that the forms have not been around long enough to wind through the court system.

A group of lawyers have been working with the State Bar to amend the statutory will. The additions would give consumers more choices and improve the instructions.

The current form, for example, provides for the selection of a guardian for "the person" and "the property" of minor children. Some people might not understand the difference. One version of the proposed revision includes this explanation:

"If you have children under age 18, you should designate a guardian of their persons to raise them. You may also want to designate a guardian of their estate to manage their assets for them until they reach age 18. At age 18, they receive their assets outright. Some people may prefer to designate a custodian to manage assets until as late as age 25."

Other proposed amendments include provisions for more than the one cash gift, the exclusion of family members, and the unequal division of the estate among children.

Another option would establish an administrative procedure to certify the validity of the will upon completion. Imagine a "statutory will deputy" authorized to review the form during the will maker's lifetime and correct any technical mistakes.

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