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Do-It-Yourself Legal Forms -- Plus or Peril

By Joan E. Lisante

NO LAWYERS! SAVE MONEY! screams a Wall Street Journal ad for "We The People," a paralegal-driven franchise cashing in on do-it-yourself fever.

An avalanche of legal forms has descended on us lately, spun out by leaders in the field like Nolo Press in Berkeley, California, and legal Web sites like Findlaw.com. Even law firms' home pages frequently include a "free forms" link for marketing purposes. So much self-help, so little time.

So how the heck do you figure out whether or not to use a legal form? And how do you separate the good forms from the bad? Strolling through the Mall of Forms without a guide map is risky. Read on to sort things out.

1) What are some of the advantages of using legal forms?
You save legal fees and can sometimes handle a matter faster than a lawyer would. Just ask Nita Zidonis, who manages a doctor's office in the Cleveland area. Zidonis, recently divorced, was going on a trip and wanted to re-do her will, but couldn't get in to see her attorney. Her next stop was the public library: "I pulled out a book on wills", she recalls, "and looked up the one that suited my situation. It was easy to understand. I had it witnessed and notarized, and that was it." Zidonis emphasizes that librarians are eager to help. "It's easy! Do it!" she advises.

Forms are usually in plain English rather than "legalese." They can be customized by striking out irrelevant information or adding extra clauses. And some believe that hiring a lawyer is "overkill" for a particular situation -- like using napalm to kill a fruitfly.

2) What are some of the disadvantages of using legal forms?
The biggest pitfall is a false sense of security. 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 if you aren't, no alarm bell will ring. Many "legal forms" are contracts, with power to bind you to a commitment you may not want.

As you might expect, lawyers aren't generally big fans of forms. Washington, D.C. attorney Cindy Lynn Wofford puts it this way: "When I use 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). I can't think of one instance where I didn't make changes to suit the particular client."

3) How can you tell a good legal form from a bad one?
Just because you've found a form that seems to fit, don't grab that Parker just yet. There are awful, not-bad, and excellent legal forms.

By reviewing and comparing several of the type you need, you'll find the most complete and easiest to read. Look for a "plain English" form which meets state requirements and mirrors your situation. Example: a will form designed for "a married couple with assets over $1,000,000" probably has legal language needed by a married couple and tax-saving aspects as well. The best forms come with clear commentary and a glossary of unfamiliar terms. Some companies provide an "800" number or e-mail address to answer questions.

You can sometimes cut through the jungle of legal forms out there by obtaining forms from a particular agency. For example, the Ohio State Medical Association has forms like living wills and powers of attorney that conform to state law.

Even if you find and complete a good form, remember to update it periodically.

4) Which legal forms are most popular?
"End-of-life documents" -- wills, estate planning forms, living wills, or "delegation documents," giving certain tasks to another person when you're incapacitated or otherwise unavailabe. These include powers of attorney (medical and financial) and naming a guardian for minor children. Carol Kus of Parma Heights, OH, is experienced in this area.

"I was living in Florida," she said, "and moved to Ohio, figuring I'd better have some documents changed to fit Ohio." The need came abruptly when her brother became seriously ill. "I used a form to draft a power of attorney, so I could handle his affairs ," said Kus. "I was able to do his banking and no one ever questioned my power of attorney." She later drafted her own living will, using a form from Office Max.

Contracts are also popular, especially "everyday" contracts like an apartment lease, the sale of a car or boat, a kitchen renovation, etc. Standard business letters too are foreign enough to most peoples' experience to merit using a form. These might include a demand letter, a defective goods notice, or a check stop-payment order.

5) If I decide to use a legal form, what safeguards I should use?
If possible, re-type the form. The more important the form, the more you should resist taking the lazy way out. If you must "fill in the blanks," be sure to strike out any language that doesn't apply. If you add language, put your initials next to the extra language.

Don't use any form until you understand it. People sign contracts everyday after giving them a half-hearted glance. But your signature on the bottom of a contract indicates that you understand and agree to what you've read. Cleveland Attorney Richard A. Rabb points out the danger of drafting a form without fully understanding the consequences: "You wouldn't buy a car unless you knew it had all its parts, but people sign legal documents without knowing their rights and whether the documents contain the necessary wording. It doesn't make sense."

The best safeguard is a "just in case" lawyer. Even if you decide to handle a matter yourself, questions can pop up as you review the document. Contact an attorney experienced in the specialty you need. Explain what you're trying to accomplish. Summarize your situation in a memo or letter to save time.

6) Are there situations when it might be better NOT to use a legal form?
The best reason is if you're unsure of what you're doing. Lawyer Mary Ellen Lench, no great fan of legal forms, likens their use to "using the Mayo clinic handbook to diagnose yourself."

If you're trying to do something out-of-the-ordinary, it's best to seek legal help. For example, when one spouse dies, there's a minimum amount to which the surviving spouse is entitled under most state laws. If you decide to leave your spouse nothing but a $200.00 collection of baseball cards, your stinginess could be challenged, and your "form will" attacked.

Another reason to look beyond the obvious is if you own enough assets to have estate or income tax issues. As Cindy Lynn Wofford notes, "Few middle class clients know whether they need tax planning or not because they don't know what property is counted or how to value it." To examine tax issues in more detail, log onto www.irs.ustreas.gov, or one of the many legal Web sites.

Third, make sure you're on equal footing with any opponents. An agreement with your next door neighbor over lawn maintenance is one thing. But if your soon-to-be-ex has hired a leading matrimonial law "bomber," you'd be suicidal to rely on yourself and fill-in-the-blank forms.

7) Who are some of the leading providers of legal forms?
The grandma of self-help legal forms is Nolo Press of Berkeley, California (800-992-6656) which has been producing legal materials for the lay person since 1971. Nolo turns out everything from self-help books like "Neighbor Law" to software for wills and living trusts.

Another source of just about any legal document is SJS Enterprises in Cleveland (216-226-4445). President Timothy J. Smith, who's been publishing legal and business kits since 1985, claims his InfoAmerica Will Kit is the "#1 selling Will Kit in America."

"If you can read and understand a newspaper, you can use this kit," boasts Smith.

Nolo's success has spawned competitors including Sphinx Publishing, a division of Sourcebooks, Inc. (630-961-3900), whose self-help law books include an appendix of state-by-state information and examples of completed forms. Or try E-Z Legal of Deerfield Beach, Florida (954-480-8933) which publishes books, software and legal kits on subjects from bankruptcy to wills.

These are "bricks and mortar" companies with a presence on the Web; there are also Web sites which stand alone. Check www.lawsmart.com and www.legaldocs.com. Many law firm sites too now include free, downloadable legal forms as a service to potential clients.

8) Any last words of advice?
Legal forms should make your life easier, not harder. Use them appropriately, and don't let your lust to avoid legal fees cloud your judgment. Virginia lawyer Carol Terwilliger, who practices estate and trust law, gets right to the point: "If you've taken a good portion of your lifetime to accumulate assets, it's worth going to an attorney to make sure that the folks you want to get your assets get them with the least amount of hassle."

RESOURCES

  • 101 Law Forms for Personal Use by Robin Leonard (Nolo Press, 1998) $24.95.
  • The Complete Book of Personal Legal Forms by Daniel Sitarz (Nova Publishing Co, 1996) $19.95.
  • 301 Legal Forms and Agreements by Mario D. German (E-Z Legal Forms, 1994) $29.95.
  • Step-By-Step Forms & Agreements by Charles B. Chernofsky (Round Lake Publishing Co., 1997) $19.95.


Joan E. Lisante is an attorney in Northern Virginia.