10.20.2014
Article

Self-Written Wills Can Have Unfortunate Results

Pennsylvania estate law is complex, largely because it has been written over several centuries and shaped by numerous court cases controlling how wills are interpreted. This caselaw can create unexpected and unfortunate results, if a will has not been created with careful language. For example, in a recent case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court distributed a father’s estate to his five children, despite the fact that the father had included specific language in his will disinheriting three of his children.

In the case, the father wrote his own will without the help or advice of an attorney. He had five adult children. The father left his red pickup truck to one of his sons, then identified three of the five children by name and stated that his decision not to provide “any distribution” to them was “intentional.”  However, the father did not include an residuary clause in his will, and died with more than $200,000 in cash assets that he did not mention in the will at all.

Wills often include specific bequests, such as the red pickup truck. A specific bequest is the identification of a particular asset, with the direction that it be left to a particular person.  All well-drafted wills also include a residuary or residue clause. That clause states what the person wants done with any leftover property of the estate.  Anything not specifically distributed to a particular person in a specific bequest will fall into the catchall residue. The residuary clause of a will often controls most of the assets, since most people don’t make specific bequests of everything they own.


Pennsylvania residents have an absolute right to control their estates and can do so by properly executing valid wills. The best way to be sure your will is valid and enforceable is to have an experienced attorney guide you through the process.


The court recognized that the father’s will made it clear that he did not intend to make any specific bequests to the three children whom he excluded from “any distribution.” But because the father did not include any residuary clause in his will, Pennsylvania intestate law controlled the residue.  Intestate law identifies who inherits when someone dies without any will, and whenever a will does not clearly identify who inherits the residue, the residue passes according to intestate rules. Because the father had no residuary clause, intestate law provided that his remaining passed to all of his children equally, so all children received an equal share of the $200,000 in cash assets.

Most people prepare their wills without any firm knowledge of how much cash and other property will be in their control at the time they pass. Unfortunately, all too often people either neglect or ignore the need for good estate planning, or try to make do with a self-prepared or computer-form will. The results in a case like the present one indicate the bad effects that can result from poor planning. However, obtaining the sound advice of a professional can assure that your estate plan will include the proper language in a will, such as a residuary clause, to guard against the kind of unfortunate results which occurred in this case, where children received a distribution even though their father had attempted to specifically disinherit them. 

Pennsylvania residents have an absolute right to control their estates and can do so by properly executing valid wills. The best way to be sure your will is valid and enforceable is to have an experienced attorney guide you through the process.

At CGA Law Firm, our estate planning attorneys are experienced in and familiar with the latest changes in legislation affecting asset protection, estate planning, and elder law. If you have questions or are in need of updating your estate plan, please contact your attorney at CGA Law Firm. 

Attorney Timothy J. Bupp is the chair of CGA Law Firm’s Estate Planning Section.  Tim is an Accredited Estate Planner (AEP®) as certified by the National Association of Estate Planning Councils, and a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA).

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