Pre-prepared Legal Documents – Why "Canned" Documents Can Get You Canned

Watching the commercials on late-night TV can be quite an education for the estate planning lawyer. It seems every channel has a commercial hawking pre-prepared, or “canned”, legal documents in order to “save you the costs of hiring a high-priced lawyer”: “Save thousands of dollars with our easy-to-fill-in (insert type of document: wills, trusts, powers of attorney, deeds, etc.)!” “They’re simple to use!” “Avoid paying premium prices for something you can do at home!” There are always people smiling, and “testimonials” by “customers” who claim the forms came with step-by-step instructions and were so easy to use.  

To think that the planning, creation and execution of the most important documents in any individual’s life could be so simple! 

If only it were so.

This is a classic case of, “if it sounds too good to be true, it’s usually because it is.” American capitalism is a wonderful thing — and as a small businessperson I certainly appreciate the freedom Americans have to make a living — but it is not so wonderful if it harms the consumer who spends his or her hard-earned money on computer programs or form documents that ultimately will not do the job.

I have had several clients come to me with pre-prepared documents that were either completely invalid, didn’t do what they were supposed to do, or required a lot of legal work afterward to fix the mess they got the client in. Some were wills, others were trusts, some were corporation papers and still others were contracts.   In each case the client wound up paying more — sometimes far more — for me to clean up the mess.  

Lawyers don’t spend four years in college and another three years in law school to be able to fill in canned forms from an online website or office supply store.   Most legal documents — especially those that people need for their everyday lives — require precision and formality in order to be legally valid. And they must carefully follow the laws of the state in which they will be used. Wills must contain very specific language and be executed with extreme precision in order to be recognized by the courts. One misstep and a will is invalid. This is particularly important because you can’t re-do a will after you’ve passed on. And that is not what you want for your heirs.

The same goes for deeds, which also must be executed properly or they are not valid. Imagine thinking you’ve transferred — or worse yet, received — a piece of property, only to find out the document isn’t worth the paper it’s written on?   Contracts are another type of document people feel they can write up themselves or used “canned” documents without knowing the requirements of the particular area of law, or that state’s law. I can’t tell you how many times one of my red-faced client’s previous penny-foolishness led to lengthy and expensive litigation.

Is it really worth saving anywhere from $750.00 to $1,500.00, depending on the type of document, to have legal documents that may not be valid? While it may be tempting to use pre-prepared legal documents in order to save a little, their use is a classic case of being “penny wise and dollar foolish”. I always say to my clients: “Pay me now or pay me later. If you pay me now it will cost you less than if you have to pay me later to clean up the mess.”

Only a member of the Bar in your state is authorized and competent to prepare these all-important life documents for you.  Seek out the proper counsel and be prepared to pay a reasonable price now for expert advice and draftsmanship in order to avoid a costly problem later.