Last week’s column closed with a reference to obtaining legal documents from online websites. I said, “Online sites that offer these documents might be tempting, but you should avoid them unless they are offered by a licensed Texas attorney.” Several people asked me to explain why they should avoid form websites when the prices are so enticing.
First, the form websites use workers who are not licensed to practice law. They employ software to knock out cookie cutter legal forms like Wills or medical directives. Sometimes they call their forms “attorney prepared,” but what they mean is that a lawyer provided the underlying form, not that a lawyer has prepared anything specifically for you. Instead, your specific papers are either computer generated or filled-in by a clerical employee.
In fact, if you examine the form websites closely, you’ll find legally required disclaimers like “You should consult an attorney in your state for serious legal matters. We are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.”
By contrast, using an online service from a licensed and board certified Texas attorney should give you access to that attorney’s experience and advice. The attorney should be individually crafting your legal documents based on your specific situation and legal needs. To practice law in Texas the attorney must be licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas, and should be board certified as a legal expert.
Second, the form websites are not legally private or confidential. One form website says it “is not a law firm and is not a substitute for an attorney or law firm. Communications … are not protected by the attorney-client privilege or work product doctrine.”
A different form website “protects” your privacy with this un-protective policy: “We may collect and/or track … information knowingly provided by you through on-line forms… We may also use your personal, demographic and profile data … for marketing and promotional purposes…. We reserve the right to share, rent, sell, or otherwise disclose data we collect to third parties.” Are they providing the legal forms service at such enticing prices so they can obtain your personal data for resale?
By contrast, a licensed attorney must comply with the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Conduct. One of the rules requires the attorney to treat your private information as confidential. Your communications with a licensed attorney are typically also protected by the attorney-client privilege.
Third, the form websites provide a false sense of security. You think they provided good legal documents, but they may be using forms that have never been tested before the Texas courts. One form website is registered as a “legal document assistant” in Los Angeles, California but provides preparation of legal documents claimed to be valid under Texas law. Another form website omits legal provisions which are critically important under Texas law.
The form websites often provide cookie-cutter mass produced forms that meet only the bare statutory requirements. In truth, statutory forms fall short of providing effective legal solutions. For example, the last major update to the Texas Medical Power of Attorney statutory form was in 1999. Since then, the federal HIPAA confidentiality rules were enacted – yet the current Texas statutory form completely ignores HIPAA. For an example of deficiencies in the Texas Statutory Power of Attorney, view the annotated statutory form on my website at http://www.Premack.com/AnnotatedPOA.pdf.
By contrast, legal services from a licensed and board certified Texas attorney should correct for and protect you from those deficiencies. Working with a licensed attorney means you are treating your legal documents as important and serious. These documents provide solutions to the most critical problems you may ever face. What if you suffer a stroke or get Alzheimer’s? How will your hard-earned money be used? Will your savings be wasted, or will your savings be used for things you most need and care about? What if you die? If you have young children, who will care for them, raise them and manage their inheritance?
Stay away from forms websites that are not offered by a licensed Texas attorney. You should seek reliability, enforceability and experience from a licensed and board certified Texas attorney.
Paul Premack is a Certified Elder Law Attorney practicing estate planning and probate law in San Antonio.
Original Publication: San Antonio Express News, February 25, 2011