It can cost you thousands of dollars to have a lawyer draft your will or a divorce settlement. Even paperwork to rent out a property or to grant someone the power to make your health-care decisions can cost hundreds of dollars. You could save most or all of that money by downloading a form online and filling it out yourself. But there is, of course, a catch—if you make mistakes, the do-it-yourself (DIY) route can backfire in a big way.
Examples: Make a mistake with your will, and you might accidentally disinherit an heir. Make a mistake with a lease agreement, and you could set yourself up for a lawsuit from a tenant.
Filling out your own legal forms makes sense only when the odds are extremely high that you can do so correctly and/or the downside for making a mistake is very limited. Here are some legal forms offered by DIY sites—and whether it’s wise to use each of them…
When DIY Typically Works
Websites such as Nolo.com and LegalZoom.com sell DIY legal forms for modest amounts, and some forms can be found online for free. The following forms generally are so straightforward that the DIY option is unlikely to create problems.
Health-care proxy, also called a durable medical power of attorney for health care, lets you appoint someone as a proxy to make health-care decisions on your behalf should you become unable to make them yourself. It’s usually perfectly fine to fill out this form on your own because health-care proxies are best when they’re simple—just name someone to act on your behalf and leave it at that. As long as the person is someone whose judgment you trust, your health-care proxy should be effective. Check whether you need a different form if you move to a different state.
Caution: Some people try to provide detailed instructions in their health-care proxies, explaining what should be done in specific medical situations. But these details are more likely to create problems than solve them—you cannot predict every potential medical situation, and if you explain what you want in certain situations but not others, it could have unwanted consequences. Your proxy might feel that he/she has to act according to the most similar situation that you describe (or someone might sue to force him to do so) even if this option is not appropriate for someone in your situation. It is reasonable to provide general guidelines to your proxy, but this need not be done in the health-care proxy document.
Helpful: If you do your health-care proxy on your own, include a HIPAA release form, too. This form grants your doctors permission to share details of your health condition with the person you named to act as your health-care proxy—details that this person needs to make intelligent decisions on your behalf.
Bill of sale legally transfers ownership of a vehicle or some other piece of property. Assuming that the payment arrangement is straightforward, this should be a very simple form, so no attorney is needed. There are subtle differences in state laws that can come into play with the transfer of vehicles, however, so it’s best to seek out a bill of sale that is designed specifically for use in your state. Enter “bill of sale” and your state’s name into a search engine—you might discover that this form is available for free on the website of your state’s department of motor vehicles.
Promissory note is a legal agreement to pay a specified amount to a particular person (or to the bearer of the note) by a specified date. Promissory notes usually are fairly easy to complete without an attorney or even a notary.
When DIY Might Be OK
The following legal form might be easy to complete—but there are reasons why the DIY route might not be ideal for you…
Lease agreement is a contract used by a landlord to rent out a home, apartment or other property.
Residential leases tend to be fairly easy to complete without an attorney, although you need to read them very carefully to understand your responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for leases to be challenged in court when tenants become dissatisfied, so many landlords conclude that it’s worth paying an attorney to draft a lease agreement just to be safe. The attorney will almost certainly start with a standard form that can be completed in a matter of minutes, but certain sections of this form might have to be reviewed, modified or removed to make it appropriate for a specific lease.
Example: The section of the lease dealing with maintenance responsibilities often must be modified. This lays out which maintenance matters are the responsibility of the property owner and which are the responsibility of the person leasing the property. But an out-of-town property owner might reasonably need the lessee to accept additional maintenance responsibilities…or the leased property might have components that require maintenance beyond what is mentioned in the standard document.
Commercial leases, unlike residential ones, always require an attorney because they tend to be more complex, often are customized and will likely face close scrutiny by the tenant’s attorney.
When DIY Is Too Dangerous
Wills, trusts, divorce settlements, powers of attorney and prenuptial agreements can be quite complicated—and they often should be complicated, especially because significant amounts of money and family relationships may be at stake. Hiring an attorney is recommended here—even if your estate is modest…your estate plan ideas are simple…or your divorce is amicable.
Still, DIY forms can serve a purpose even here. If you are willing to make the effort, go ahead and fill out these forms to the best of your ability (or use a DIY computer program such as Quicken WillMaker), then take the completed documents to an attorney for review. Most attorneys are willing to review DIY legal forms.
Best-case scenario: Few or no changes to your draft will be required, and you will have to pay for only an hour or two of the attorney’s time. Worst case: The attorney will have to completely redo your documents. But even if this occurs, filling out the DIY forms will help you think through the issues.