In a recent blog post, I discussed the pros and cons of choosing to represent yourself in court actions, rather than hiring an attorney to handle your matter. In such legal areas as civil litigation, family law, bankruptcy, small claims, traffic court, etc., there are times when you can act effectively on your own behalf and save the expenses involved in getting a lawyer to take your case.
For better or worse, there’s an abundance of resources on the Internet to assist you in minor, do-it-yourself (DIY) legal matters. But before making use of such sites, it’s best to be aware of potential pitfalls. As with most things in life, “You get what you pay for” should be your guiding mantra.
Legal in all 50 states?
Remember, anyone can post anything online, often with very few repercussions. For example, looking up definitions for legal terms or attempting to find answers to legal questions on Wikipedia is very risky. Relying on information you find there and on other general information websites could land you in a great deal of trouble.
Probably the riskiest DIY practice is using legal forms obtained online. While there are some legitimate websites (those created and maintained by experienced attorneys), various sites are out there that offer “easy-to-use” forms and assure the public that “no attorney assistance is required.” Some also claim their forms are “legal in all 50 states!”—without also noting that individual states often have other legal requirements which are not included in the DIY form. Further, some legal matters may involve legal forms which are very similar to other legal forms, but for a sentence, a phrase or even just a word. While the slightest difference in terminology or other formality may not seem important, it may end up being so significant that it (1) costs you (or another intended beneficiary) substantial amounts of money or (2) otherwise does not achieve your desired outcome, leaving you with a document worth about as much as the paper it is printed on.
A case of DIY gone bad
Here’s an example of where use of an online form can create legal difficulties down the road, a situation that has presented itself to me on more than a few occasions. John, who has been married for several years, presented me with a pre-nuptial agreement he’d completed several years ago with his then-fiancé. The pre-nup was downloaded from what he thought was a perfectly respectable legal document website, touting “practically iron-clad pre-nuptial agreements” which can be completed and signed anti fungal “without the need of expensive attorneys.”
Upon reviewing the document, I found numerous issues, including a lack of inventory or other specific identification of each party’s separate property. The legal form simply stated that “all assets brought into the marriage shall remain separate property”—ambiguous wording that wouldn’t adequately protect an individual from a claim of community property interest concerning assets he brought to the marriage without additional documentation (e.g. tracing documents showing that the property was not only brought into the marriage but that, among other things, no community contributions had been made to that property). Further, John and his spouse believed they had included and properly agreed to a “spousal support waiver,” when, in fact, California law requires that the person whose receipt of spousal support is limited or waived had independent counsel before entering into the agreement.
I regretfully informed John that his pre-nup was practically worthless and that now, years later, he has very limited options with regard to getting what he wants.
What you should do
If you decide to go the DIY route and use a legal form you find online, I strongly advise that you consult with an attorney before proceeding with such a form. Many lawyers, myself included, offer to review documents and provide advice on same for a reduced fee, less than if that attorney prepared the document(s) themselves. This way, you get valuable peace of mind with respect to your legal affairs, rather than buyer’s remorse down the road.
Also, some websites offer an option for “reduced-price attorney advice” services. While this can be very beneficial, make sure that the person you talk to is an actual lawyer, licensed to practice in the state where the legal issue arises. It’s easy to verify such a license by checking with that state’s Bar Association, such as the attorney directory located on the State Bar of California website.
A final note: the more complex your legal case is, the more you need to recognize your limitations. Rather than choosing the supposedly easier and cheaper DIY option—which could end up being neither cheap or easy in the long run—look into retaining the services of an experienced attorney.
Are you in need of legal counseling, document review, or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf, APC offer a free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.