Why Not DIY Legal? by: Ryan T. Webster
Instead of hiring professionals, many of us try to save money by doing it ourselves. Sometimes our DIY projects workout as planned or no harm is done when they don’t. Like with haircuts and surgery, DIY lawyering can go horribly wrong. In Texas, an individual may represent himself or herself in a lawsuit and may draft his or her own contracts and other legal documents. In the law, an individual representing himself in a lawsuit is called a pro se party, which is a Latin phrase meaning “for oneself” or “on one’s own behalf.” This article contains just of few examples of DYI lawyering gone wrong. Sometimes these wrongs can be fixed. Other times, they cannot. Even when there is a fix, the repair costs are almost always more than the initial savings. This article is not intended as legal advice and does not provide comprehensive instructions on how to handle any legal matter.
In Texas, a defendant must timely file a written answer when served with a lawsuit or risk losing by default. In most cases, the answer can simply state “I generally deny Plaintiff’s claims”, even if the claims are true. The plaintiff then has the burden to prove its claims. The first example of DIY lawyering gone wrong comes from a trial I witnessed several years ago while waiting in a courtroom for my case to be called. A pro se defendant was sued on an unpaid credit card debt. No one appeared to put on a case for the credit card company. Ordinarily, when the plaintiff does not show up for trial, the case is dismissed because there is no evidence before the court to prove the plaintiff’s claims. Before deciding to dismiss the case, the judge took a look at the answer filed by the pro se defendant. Instead of a general denial, she filed a detailed admission to owing the debt and denied nothing; thus, proving the credit card company’s case. Her honesty was not rewarded.
Another area where the “Do It Yourselfers” get themselves in trouble is with preparing their own legal documents, such as deeds, business documents, and wills.
Common DIY mistakes with deeds include, incorrect or inadequate legal descriptions of the property being conveyed, failing to reserve mineral interests or other rights, warrantying bad title, and having someone without the proper authority sign the deed. These mistakes can result in costly litigation, the deed being void or voidable, or the sale of a home falling through or being delayed until mistakes are corrected.
Often a business owner, in an effort to save money, will buy a form or copy a large corporation’s business documents (By Laws, Buy/Sell Agreements, Employment Agreements, etc.). The Microsofts of the world probably have well-drafted documents that suit their needs, but they are not for everyone. There are several factors that dictate which laws apply to a business including, the number of employees, its revenue, its structure (e.g., LLC, S-Corp., etc.), and the state of formation. For example, businesses with just a few employees are not subject to FMLA, ADA, and other laws that apply to businesses with more employees. Private companies with a few owners usually don’t want or need the rigid agreements that publicly traded companies often have. By copying the Big Guys’ documents, a small business may contractually opt into these laws and impose unnecessary obligations on itself. In complying with these obligations, a business will need to devote significant time and money that many small businesses (especially new ones) don’t have.
Estate planning is another area of law where doing it yourself can lead to big problems. Often these problems are not discovered until it’s too late. When a will is not properly drafted, witnessed, or properly executed, it may not satisfy the legal requirements needed for admission to probate. Thus, the deceased’s wishes are not carried out and his property is distributed in accordance with Texas intestacy law. There are work arounds to some of the mistakes commonly found in wills, but they are not available in all cases and not certain to work. The work arounds increase the cost to probate a properly drafted will, can delay probate, and create grounds for litigation among family members.
The adage “what you don’t know can hurt you” is very applicable to the legal arena. Mistakes can be very costly. Many lawyers, including this one, consult with other lawyers when facing an issue outside of their area(s) of practice. If you find yourself in need of assistance, contact a qualified attorney. If you don’t know one, ask for a referral from friends or the local Bar Association (www.dentonbar.com) or search online at websites like Martindale.com. It may just payoff in the long run.
Ryan T. Webster is an associate at Alagood Cartwright Burke PC and can be reached at [email protected] and www.dentonlaw.com.