From The [Legal] Artist:
“Greg,” a prospective client might ask me, “Where can I find a free online form to create my contract/document/will?”
“I don’t recommend doing that,” I would likely respond.
“But isn’t the democratization of the law something to celebrate?” they might retort. “Why are you against progress?”
Just to be clear, I’m not against the public having access to affordable and useful legal information (what do you think this blog is, after all?) and I’m very much in favor of people with genuine financial limitations having SOMETHING rather than nothing. So in a pinch, if you can’t afford a lawyer, a template document can be a useful tool.
. . . .
1. You don’t know what’s in them. The legalese in these forms can be confusing and because of that, the form might contain language that isn’t applicable to your situation, or worse, is actively harmful to your interests. I’ve seen first hand how badly this can go… several years ago I had a client who used an online form to license his work to another party. But because he selected the wrong form, he accidentally ended up selling the rights to his work outright and wasn’t able to get them back. There’s a reason lawyers spend so much time and money on schooling and then years working for other attorneys… to build up the knowledge base and skills needed to understand how to read and write these documents.
. . . .
3. They can’t anticipate what you don’t know to look for. Let’s be honest. You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why you hire a professional anytime something bad happens with your car, your house, your lower back, etc. Using a form that can’t anticipate your knowledge level means you could be leaving money on the table you didn’t know you had a right to; it could leave out important clauses that protect your interests and include clauses that harm you; it could result in ambiguous terms that neither party can understand; it could force you into arbitration when you’d rather use the court system. You may end up worse than you started because you didn’t know what to look for.
Link to the rest at The [Legal] Artist
PG will share a story from one of his past legal lives when he handled much different legal matters than he does now. He believes it illustrates an extreme case of what can happen when a well-meaning person creates a legal document he/she doesn’t fully understand.
A woman named Lodima Long had an attorney (not PG) prepare a will for her. Perhaps it was because she had worked hard all her life and/or had outlived three husbands, she had a lot more money and property than most of the other people in her family. Lodima was a widow with no surviving children. Her will allocated her money and property among a wide variety of different relatives.
Lodima signed the will and it was properly witnessed and notarized. Lodima left the attorney’s office with her valid will in her purse.
Several months thereafter, Lodima decided to take an extended trip to visit a large number of her relatives. She took her will with her.
Apparently, as she visited various of her relatives, she decided to make changes in how her estate was to be divided. Lodima started crossing out parts of her will and making changes to it. In pencil. The resulting document was full of deletions, additions, erasures, lines, arrows and tiny comments.
After a few months, Lodima returned home with her will. She then proceeded to die.
A couple of Lodima’s extended family members discovered the will among Lodima’s belongings after the funeral. They were named in the will. They read the will. A period of time passed. The family members brought the marked-up will to an attorney to start the probate process.
By the time PG was hired by a handful of Lodima’s heirs, her probate had been a contested proceeding for 13 years. About 15-20 attorneys were involved (the number had varied from time to time during the pendency of the probate because some heirs had died and left heirs of their own and a couple of the original attorneys plus the attorney who drafted the original will, had also died.).
PG managed to settle the matter by the simple method of asking that the judge set the case for trial. Since nobody (including the judge) was at all anxious to attempt to prepare for what was certain to be a long and messy trial with a lot of witnesses calling each other liars, the judge summoned the sheriff and several deputies to the courtroom. With muscle at hand, the judge threatened to sequester all the parties and their attorneys in the courthouse until a settlement was reached, no matter how long it took. The various and sundry parties then managed to agree on a settlement that parceled out Lodima’s estate to her various and sundry heirs in a manner that was definitely not consistent with Lodima’s intentions, whatever they might have been.