The internet purveyors of legal documents are always very careful to note, in their seemingly ubiquitous commercials, that they offer document services only, and not legal advice.
We recently submitted for filing, in a Missouri court, the Will of someone who had utilized a form provided by one of those document services. It probably seemed to her, at the time, to be a very reasonable way of saving some money, since she was widowed and simply wanted her modest estate to be divided in equal shares among her children. In accordance with Missouri law, her Will was witnessed by two witnesses, and her signature as well as those of the two witnesses were in turn witnessed by a notary public.
The court rejected the Will for filing as a “self-proving” one, because the notary attestation clause did not conform with the requirements under Missouri law. An estate planning attorney licensed to practice law in Missouri would not have made that mistake in his or her own document. The lay person never realized that anything was wrong, and of course the document preparation service did not offer legal advice and therefore cannot be held accountable for something a legal advisor would have caught.
Hopefully, the Will can still be admitted to probate. We will be obtaining commissions for the witnesses (yes, there is a cost involved), and assuming that they can still be tracked down (they all worked at the same bank several years ago), they can provide the testimony which is now necessary in order to get that accomplished.
There is an old saying that “you get what you pay for,” and when it comes to legal documents, that definitely holds true. It is also very true, when it comes to legal documents, that it is much less expensive to prevent a problem than it is to fix one.
On a related subject, “dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s” may not be of particular importance in many contexts, and in a world in which grammatical inaccuracies and gross misspellings have become increasingly acceptable practices as we more frequently utilize our telephones and tablets to convey cryptic electronic messages, getting things exactly right might not seem to be a big deal any more.
But wills and contracts are not the same as texts and Twitter posts, and those who fail to appreciate the difference proceed at their own peril. Even in a world in which “everything is available on the internet,” it’s still wise to leave the preparation of legal documents to skilled and trained lawyers.