Boilerplate and Default Rules in Wills Law: An Empirical Analysis

Author:Reid Kress Weisbord & David Horton
Position:Vice Dean, Professor of Law, and Judge Norma L. Shapiro Scholar, Rutgers Law School/Professor of Law and Chancellor's Fellow, University of California, Davis, School of Law (King Hall)
Pages:663-711
SUMMARY

The prime directive of wills law is to honor a testator's intent. As a result, lawmakers take pains to populate the field with majoritarian default rules: those that fill gaps in an estate plan with principles that reflect the wishes of most property owners. However, this Article exposes a phenomenon that undermines these efforts. Using an original, hand-collected dataset of 230 recently probated ... (see full summary)

 
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Boilerplate and Default Rules in Wills
Law: An Empirical Analysis
Reid Kress Weisbord * & David Horton**
ABSTRACT: The prime directive of wills law is to honor a testator’s intent.
As a result, lawmakers take pains to populate the field with majoritarian
default rules: those that fill gaps in an estate plan with principles that reflect
the wishes of most property owners. However, this Article exposes a
phenomenon that undermines these efforts. Using an original, hand-collected
dataset of 230 recently probated wills, it demonstrates that testators routinely
opt out of majoritarian default rules through provisions that appear to be
boilerplate. This practice is especially prevalent for “non-salient” matters:
vital but obscure topics such as the consequences of a beneficiary dying before
the testator, how to divide gifts among multi-generational classes, and who
must pay mortgages and death taxes. The Article then uses these empirical
results to urge judges and legislatures to reconsider the structure of default
rules in wills law. Currently, most non-salient topics are governed by “simple”
default rules, which yield to any contrary textual command. Conversely, the
Article argues that “sticky” defaults, which are harder to displace, would better
insulate a testator’s likely desires from the plague of testamentary boilerplate.
I. INTRODUCTION ............................................................................. 664
II.DEFAULT RULES AND BOILERPLATE IN WILLS LAW ....................... 669
A.DEFAULT RULES ...................................................................... 670
B.BOILERPLATE .......................................................................... 673
III.EMPIRICAL RESULTS ...................................................................... 685
A.DATA DESCRIPTION ................................................................. 685
B.RESULTS ................................................................................. 688
1.Survivorship Language ................................................. 690
*
Vice Dean, Professor of Law, and Judge Norma L. Shapiro Scholar, Rutgers Law School.
**
Professor of Law and Chancellor’s Fellow, University of California, Da vis, School of Law.
Thanks to Mark Ascher, Naomi Cahn, Joel Dobris, David Hoffman, John Langbein, David Noll,
and Stephen Urice for valuable comments. We are also especially grateful to Surrogate Gary
Chiusano of the Sussex County, New Jersey Surrogate’s Court for facilitating access to the public
records.
664 IOWA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 103:663
i.Survivorship Conditions and Antilapse ...................... 690
ii.Language of Representation ....................................... 692
2.“Just Debts” .................................................................... 695
3.Tax Apportionment ...................................................... 698
IV. POLICY IMPLICATIONS ................................................................... 699
A.SIMPLE DEFAULTS ................................................................... 700
B.STICKY DEFAULTS .................................................................... 703
V.CONCLUSION ................................................................................ 710
I. INTRODUCTION
On April 5, 2010, a New Jersey resident named Robert Paulson signed
his last will and testament.1 In this short, professionally drafted document,
Robert left a house to his daughter, Sharon, and the rest of his property to his
wife, Rebecca.2 Five years later, Robert died.3
1. See Will of Robert C. Paulson at 3 (Sussex Cty. Surr. Ct. Apr. 5, 2010) (on file with
authors) [hereinafter Paulson Will].
2. See id. at 1–2.
3. See Application Probate at 1, In re Estate of Paulson (Sussex Cty. Surr. Ct. Apr. 2, 2015)
(on file with authors).
2018] BOILERPLATE AND DEFAULT RULES IN WILLS LAW 665
Figure 1: Robert Paulson’s Will

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