The Million Dollar Comma
With the advent of legal service websites like Legal Zoom, Rocket Lawyer, nolo.com, etc., almost anyone can draft a will, a durable power of attorney, or a real estate contract. People can even set up a limited liability company and draft their own divorce documents. The advent of “cost effective” online legal services should be signaling the demise of the brick and mortar, flesh and blood attorney, right?
We’ve all heard the old adages: “Pay now or pay later” and “Just enough information to be dangerous.” That has never been more applicable than with the proliferation of self-help legal websites. These websites offer form banks for standard documents and general legal and/or statutory guidelines. But there are times when that may not be enough. Have you ever heard of the “Million Dollar Comma”? Often touted as rumor or some sort of urban legend, it is anything but.
One part of the U.S. Tariff Act of June 6, 1872 contained a sentence that intended to exempt the importation of semi-tropical and tropical fruit plants from tariffs. The sentence was meant to read “Fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.” One comma, however, was mysteriously moved one word to the left during the copying process, thereby rendering the sentence as: “Fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.”
Importers of oranges and lemons and the like were quick to seize upon the misplacement and use it to their advantage. They contended that under the wording of the act, all tropical and semi-tropical fruit were exempt and thus could be brought into the U.S. without payment of the tariffs.
The Treasury initially ruled against this interpretation, but then later reversed itself and sided with the fruit importers. Most of the monies collected as duty on the import of tropical and semi-tropical fruit while the errant comma was in effect were refunded to those who had paid the fee. That memorable punctuation error deprived the U.S. government of an estimated $1 million in revenues.
Of course, most of us aren’t dealing with something on the scale of the above example and that really isn’t a case of not having adequate legal representation; however, similar consequences are well within the realm of possibility for anyone. Imagine, for example, that you have a modest estate and you love all three of your children equally. Your spouse predeceased you and you would like to update your will to reflect your current situation. So, you go online with the best intentions to draft a simple will that divides your estate equally among your three children. You draft your will to leave your entire estate “to Child A, Child B and Child C, in equal shares.” Despite your intentions, what you have now done constructively is to give Child A half of your estate while Child B and Child C will be left to divide the other half. The proper drafting to achieve your desired result would have been to leave your entire estate “to Child A, Child B, and Child C, in equal shares.” Thus, each child would thereby receive 33 1/3% of your estate. While this simple punctuation mistake may be overlooked by many, this missing comma could provide an heir with the legal grounds to contest the will. What was intended to be a simple will could potentially result in a contentious and costly court battle.
Legal websites will tell you that drafting basic legal documents rarely involves complicated legal rules and most people do not need a lawyer’s help to draft those types of documents. While that may be true, it’s not always the “complicated legal rules” that you need to look out for. Sometimes it just may be worth it to pay a professional for that added peace of mind.