Downfalls of do-it-yourself legal forms

Every year thousands of consumers bypass lawyers and create their own wills, powers of attorney, estate planning documents and other legal documents using the help of online tools and books.As one might expect, lawyers don't like this do-it-yourself approach. Lawyers believe that it breeds mistakes because when it comes to legal issues, one size never fits all. Do lawyers have a valid point or are we just trying to protect our livelihoods? The honest answer might be a little bit of both. As one might expect, the pros and cons of creating your own legal documents without professional help vary by individual. Almost everyone agrees that for people with complicated family or legal situations involving children from multiple spouses or great wealth, professional help is the way to go. However, people differ vastly in their opinion as to whether or not to use legal advice from lawyers when their legal problems are simple and straight forward. So if you decided to attempt to draft your own legal document, how do you avoid the pitfalls? And what is the biggest pitfall that most people face when they take on the task of preparing the legal forms themselves? It is, ladies and gentlemen, the false sense of security in the complicated world of law practice. Now, this is not to say that some are not deserving of this feeling. However, what about the few that should have worries and don't? Unfortunately, by the time you discover that the legal forms are incorrect, it may be too late and the legal consequence is now beyond your control. This is the nightmare that most people do not want to find themselves facing and thus the reason why lawyers make the big bucks. Most people are lured into drafting their own legal forms when they see advertisements such as, "It looks so simple -- just pick a form, gather information and fill in the blanks." Even the book says so: "Legal in all 50 states!" But few forms come with enough explanation to assure the user that he or she is using the instrument in the right way. And to make matters worse, if you aren't doing it correctly, no alarm bell will ring. Many "legal forms" are contracts, with power to bind you to a commitment you may not want. When a client asks me to review a will or contract form that someone else has drafted, I don't let any client sign it unless I understand every word, including the boilerplate (standard language) kind. I can't think of one instance where I didn't make changes to suit the particular client. With that said, the task is not impossible. So if you must prepare your own legal forms, I suggest that you first doing a bit of legal research so that you understand some of the legal jargons contained in the forms. A good source to start is your public library or bookstore. A good and reliable publisher is Nolo Press. Nolo Press is written for non-lawyers and covers numerous different legal subjects. Also, before you pay for a legal form, first go online to the California Judicial Council Forms website at Here you will not only find the forms free of charge, but many of them come with instructions on how to fill out the forms. And some even have translation in other languages. This website is the policymaking body of the California courts, the largest court system in the nation. And lastly, recognize when you are in over your head and seek the advice of a lawyer. It is better to prevent a legal error now in the process than it is to discover years later that the legal forms were done incorrectly. The purpose of this column is to provide general information on the law, which is subject to change. It is not legal advice. Consult a lawyer if you have a specific legal problem.

********** Published: December 2, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 33