With the advent of services like Legal Zoom and the ever increasing availability of legal forms and information on the internet, many potential consumers of legal services are tempted to ask – do I really need to hire a lawyer? In answering this question, it may help to consider some of the following real-life examples:
The Form Will
While assisting his mother in her final days with a terminal illness, the mother reveals to the son that she would like to make changes to her estate plan. The son pulls a pre-formatted form off the internet and revises it to comply with what he believes are the mother’s new wishes. However, in preparing the will himself, the son neglects to observe specific formalities in the execution of the will. Upon the mother’s death, other family members use these oversights as a basis for challenging the will. A costly court battle ensues.
The Form Divorce Agreement
A husband and wife wish to come to an agreement resolving the issues in their pending divorce case. They want to do so quickly and without the expense of involving a lawyer. So they pull a form ‘marital settlement agreement’ off the internet. As part of the agreement, they agree that the husband will pay the wife a particular amount of spousal support (sometimes called “alimony”) for a period of years. The husband loses his job shortly thereafter and is no longer able to pay spousal support. When the husband looks into whether he can lower his monthly spousal support payments, he learns that their form agreement does not contain a provision that would allow him to seek to change his monthly payments in the event of a development like the loss of a job. As a result, the husband learns that he will likely be legally obligated to continue to make the payments, even though he no longer has his job.
The Do-it-Yourself Child Support Agreement
A father is obligated to make monthly child support payments of $900 per month to mother under a court order. Father hits hard times and needs to reduce his child support payments. Father and Mother talk about doing this. They both agree that, rather than get lawyers involved and go back to court (an experience that neither of them enjoyed previously), they will just have a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that Father can reduce his payments to $400 per month. Several years later, the child is much older and is incurring significantly more expenses. In addition, college is on the horizon. Father and Mother begin arguing about money more often. Eventually, when matters come to a head, Father consults a lawyer and learns that his ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with Mother may not be legally valid since it was never in writing and never put into a court order. Father learns that he is potentially on the hook for the full $900 per month that he ‘should’ have been paying the past several years, along with 6% interest on the unpaid amount.
By now you probably get the picture. In fact, these are just a few examples. But the lesson is the same for each: when it comes to important issues like the disposition of your estate, or your rights in divorce or family law case, obtaining qualified guidance in the beginning can avoid major problems later on.
Most people would probably agree that taking the time to work with a lawyer is akin to getting a root canal, doing your taxes, or having your annual physical. But if the question is ‘is it worth it?’ – the smart money says ‘yes.’
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