The Risks of Using Stock Legal Documents
Thinking of using stock legal documents to save money?
It is now easier than ever before to obtain a wide variety of legal documents online. These stock legal documents may be templates with blanks to be filled in or examples of completed documents. Stock leases, contracts, wills, and other documents can all be found online through a simple Google search, or by purchasing them from one of the numerous websites that offer them. This means that anyone can download one of these documents, and, with a few edits, produce something that they hope will suit their purposes. Unfortunately, that hope is often misplaced.
In our practice, we sometimes encounter documents that started out as stock legal forms. Occasionally, these documents are suitable for the purpose intended. But more often they contain provisions that cause problems, or the document is completely ineffective and unenforceable.
The Document’s Language Must be Clear
One common problem with a stock legal document is the difficult language or “legalese” they often contain. Overly formalistic or legal terms popular in years past can make a document’s meaning challenging to discern for an attorney who has seen this type of language before. For a non-attorney, it could very likely lead to misstatements or misunderstandings. A legal contract composed solely of stock provisions is, in most situations, unlikely to fully accomplish the parties’ aims.
Editing a Stock Document Can Just Lead to More Problems
Unfortunately, editing stock provisions will often introduce additional problems unless the editor is familiar with the applicable law and has experience reviewing similar documents. Without that experience, the editing process will likely produce a document that is unclear and even contradictory. For example, a contract may contain key terms that are never actually defined in the document, or a lease may require two different parties to pay the same expense, leaving it impossible to tell which party is actually responsible. The editor lacking experience has no way to tell whether necessary provisions were omitted from the document.
Even a Well-Drafted Document Might Not Be Enforceable
In addition to the potential problems with the language of a stock legal form, even if a document with serviceable words is produced, it may not worth the paper it is printed on unless the proper formalities are followed in adopting it. For some legal documents, merely signing may be sufficient. For many others, however, notarizing, witnessing, or both may be required before the document becomes enforceable. These formalities are easy to miss or improperly perform.
An online form might also be useless because it utilizes provisions from another legal jurisdiction which a local court will not honor. Template documents found online, even if they are purchased from a legal documents provider, are unlikely to be tailored for your state of residence.
Can I Use This Document?
A more subtle problem with using stock legal documents is whether you have the right to use them. If you purchase a template, you probably purchase the right to re-use it for yourself. But what if you reuse an agreement you found in a general internet search? Copying someone else’s writing without their permission is illegal.
If you use a stock legal document and eventually need to have an attorney revise it, it could be that the revision will be more expensive and time consuming than if the attorney had handled the matter from the beginning. Worse, you may find yourself in a contract dispute without a reliable underlying document. It is important to carefully consider the risks of using stock legal documents and whether you might be better served by obtaining the assistance of an experienced contract attorney instead. Contact us and we will assist you with ensuring that your legal documents serve you well and are enforceable.