Boilerplate and default rules in wills law: An empirical analysis

Reid Kress Weisbord, David Horton

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations

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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)663-711
Number of pages49
JournalIowa Law Review
Volume103
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Law

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