I have a new line of business in my office. It started by accident when I helped a couple I will call the Smiths. The Smiths wanted me to simplify an estate planning trust they had gotten from another lawyer because they couldn’t understand it. I stripped out everything that I skip over when I read trusts and put the rest of it in plain English. I sent a draft of my work out to be reviewed by the clients and it came back with numerous changes written in red ink. When I met with the couple about the changes the wife said to me. “You are the third lawyer to write us an estate plan. This is the first one I ever read.” They were able to make changes--make it their own--because they were able to understand what it said.
I had an moment of clarity about what we lawyers are doing to our clients.
A couple weeks later another couple came in. They handed me a paper brick of legalese and said, “The Smiths said you could get rid of this.” I took the brick and a few days later gave them an estate plan that was six pages of simple English. They paid a lot of money for those six pages, but getting rid of the brick was worth it to them. Since then there has been a steady stream of clients hiring me to replace their page-after-page of incomprehensible legalese with something short, plain, and understandable. I am pleased to do it and, as a result of my experience with the Smiths, have completely changed the templates I use for estate planning. My estate planning forms are now short and written in plain English.
I love forms. All lawyers love forms. We buy them, we trade them, and we steal them from each other. The forms we buy, steal, and trade are written for lawyers, not for regular people. When I first started practicing in probate I used the estate planning forms written by Valerie Vollmar, a professor at Willamette University. Lots of Oregon lawyers use her forms. Later in my practice, I switched to a national provider. At the time, I thought that my clients wanted more paper for their money and the national providers give you lots of pages. During those days, I created the kinds of paper bricks I now get paid to get rid of. Later I discovered that people didn’t really want all that paper and went back to Valerie’s forms. I used them until I met the Smiths. Now I have my own forms.
Once a lawyer is satisfied with his forms, he changes the names to accommodate the new client and writes just enough to personalize the plan for the client’s special needs. In the old days we bought the forms on paper and copied them. Today, it is all done by computers. I use OpenOffice and the data base program that comes with it. I fill in all the names and hit a button. The documents come up on the screen with the names filled in, and I tweek the document with my word processor to address the client’s individual needs. Some lawyers use Hot Docs to do this. Some lawyers go whole hog and use expensive national document production systems like Wealth Counsel or Interactive Legal. The big document production programs produce big documents. If your lawyer gave you a thirty page revocable trust printed on thick paper, it probably came from one of these folks.
Some form providers market their wares directly to consumers. LegalZoom and Suze Orman’s online will and trust creator are probably the most advertised. These folks let you fill in the blanks yourself. I have never paid to look at their forms (Why would I? I have my own.) My sense is that they work okay if you follow the directions carefully and have the documents properly witnessed. I have seen wills made online that were perfectly good, and I have seen wills made online that were perfectly horrible. The drawback to an online lawyer is that you get the form, but you don’t get the lecture about how probate and estate planning works in your town. Law is local. I don’t get paid the big bucks because I know the general concepts I learned in law school or because I can fill out a form made by a company in Florida. I get clients because I know the attitude of the judges in Portland and can call the local probate coordinators by name.
Oddly enough, the forms sold directly to consumers are often more incomprehensible than the ones sold to lawyers. The forms sold to consumers by national providers need to meet the requirements of all fifty states. It is tough to write an understandable document that does that. Stevens-Ness forms are specific to Oregon, but read like they were written by an English barrister from a Dickens novel. I have no idea why.
If you are doing an estate plan, one way or another, you are going to be involved with forms. If you come to my office, I will be tinkering with the forms. If you buy your own forms, you will be doing it yourself. Doing it yourself is cheaper. At least at the beginning. Repairing the damage from bad estate planning documents is one of the most lucrative parts of my practice. Having a lawyer do it is more expensive, but safer. The choice is yours and depends upon the amount of risk you are comfortable taking.