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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

DIY LEGAL

By Sean Hayden, Esq.

TOPIC: ATTORNEYS

Do It Yourself. Great idea for redoing your kitchen tile. Perhaps not a great idea for creating your own legal documents.

Consumers these days are besieged by ads for internet downloads and store bought mass market do-it-yourself legal kits. These products promise to save you hundreds of dollars in legal fees. However, when one considers the role that a legal document, such as a Last Will and Testament or a Living Trust, plays in your life, it’s important to realize some things are best for professional advice.

This summer after spending a bit too much time in the sun, I noticed a couple of skin moles. Naturally, I was concerned about skin cancer. I could have consulted the internet to self diagnose myself. After all, there are lots of sites with pictures and descriptions of which moles are malignant and benign. Instead, I made an appointment with a pathologist to properly check them out. And a clean bill of health later, I’m glad I did.

I think it’s the same way with legal matters. While we’re not talking about a literal life and death matter, faulty estate documents, in particular, can mean financial ruin for your loved ones after your death. When a prospective client brings in a document he has prepared through an internet or software form, invariably the final product simply does not express what the client intended. Many times the document simply has no legal effect. Interestingly, most of these premade forms carry the disclaimer “You should seek appropriate legal, financial, or other expert advice or assistance as may be required.”

An internet form can, however, provide you with a framework to start thinking about issues you’ve never had to contemplate. And the internet can be a great tool to educate yourself about legal matters so that your representation by an attorney can be more effective. But be aware there is a lot of misinformation out there. (I can’t tell how many people visit my office thinking a Living Trust will save estate taxes or that the City of New York domestic partner registry conveys full inheritance rights.)
Still, it seems many people will avoid seeing a lawyer and opt for DIY because they don’t believe they can afford legal services and they see the internet as a cheaper alternative. Yet I’m amazed to hear of friends who can easily can justify spending on that long weekend to Mexico or that splurge at the Barney’s Sale but will scrimp and save when it comes to medical and legal care. Fortunately, there are plenty of reasonably priced attorneys out there to suit almost anyone’s budget. And at some point, we simply have to decide that one’s well being, whether it is medical or legal, is worth the personal investment.
So remember, DIY may be great for that new kitchen tiling. After all, if you make a mistake you can always do it over. When it comes to estate documents, there is no "do-over." After you pass away, your loved ones may be left picking up the pieces of your bargain.