Many people wonder why they should hire an attorney, especially when there are various forms, books, websites, and software available designed to help you create your own estate plan, file your own divorce, or start your own business. Attorneys provide more than the necessary forms. The right attorney can provide you with peace of mind, a helping hand, legal advice, and the expertise needed to guide you through the legal process and craft individualized documents that protect you and meet your needs.
As described by Troy Neff in this article published by the Toledo Free Press, one of the most common risks of being a DIY attorney is the unintentional consequences your work may create. The client in Mr. Neff’s article created his own estate plan which put him at risk of:
- Paying as much income tax as humanly possible.
- Losing most or all of his assets if something were to happen to his girlfriend or kids.
- Paying all kinds of penalties and gift taxes if the Internal Revenue Service looked at what he was doing.
- Getting nailed big time if something unexpected were to happen.
- Going broke if he ended up requiring any long-term care.
- Having his estate value eroded every year by not being properly diversified and not having a real opportunity to beat inflation.
Don’t make the mistake of putting yourself or your family at risk of losing everything. Seek the advice of an attorney before attempting any DIY legal documents.
Just like all of you non-lawyers hear the horror stories of over-priced attorneys and expensive litigation (i.e. “I know someone who spent $50,000 on his divorce. All that for nothing!”), lawyers get to hear all of the horror stories of clients who think they can do it without a lawyer, and then suffer the consequences. Just in recent months I have heard countless stories (from other attorneys and the people themselves):
- The woman who used a paralegal forms service for her divorce, where she was awarded an interest in her husband’s retirement account. However, nobody told her that to actually get the money she would need a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). Imagine her surprise when at her ex-husband’s death his new wife received “her” interest in the retirement account.
- The people who thought they could save money with their divorce and custody cases by using online services. They spent $200-$1,000 for the exact same forms that are available for free from the Minnesota Judicial Branch. One of these people had the mistaken impression that the place that sold the forms would provide additional support and services. And in the end they all ended up hiring an attorney anyways.
- The people that thought they could handle the child support or custody hearing themselves, but failed to have any understanding of what was involved, what evidence was needed, and what was at stake. Only when they received an unfavorable result in a court order did they seek legal counsel. And by that time, you are playing a different game…
Now I’m not saying everyone needs to hire an attorney. I understand that legal fees can get expensive, and we all tend to have some sort of “do-it-yourself” ambition. But make sure you know what you are getting into and understand your legal rights and the legal process before you find yourself at the point of no return.
Take the time to research and learn about the process and your options. Don’t go into a legal proceeding with your eyes shut.
Consult with a lawyer ahead of time. I charge a flat $25 for an initial consultation, where I will get some basic information from you and explain the process and what you can expect. I typically spend one to two hours on the consultation.
If you need more guidance, but still want to represent yourself, find a lawyer who provides “unbundled” or “limited” services. This is a good option if you just want a lawyer for a limited purpose (such as reviewing a contract or Marital Termination Agreement before you sign it, or helping you prepare for a court hearing.) Some lawyers will do this for an hourly fee others will quote a flat fee, but not all lawyers are willing to provide these services.
Don’t let the fear of legal fees get in the way of having proper representation. Spend some time looking for the right lawyer for you. Make sure you understand the lawyer’s billing policies. Ask the lawyer how you can work together to reduce your fees and ask about payment options. Spending a couple thousand upfront might be a tough pill to swallow, but it may be well worth it in the long run.