Consumers should avoid DIY legal work

Philip Curtis

Often, our job as lawyers involves fixing problems after the fact, as opposed to our preferred approach of proactively planning and documenting transactions. Most of the time, do-it-yourself (DIY) issues arise because someone used a fill-in-the-blank "legal document" they bought from an office supply store or copied from a website.

I've often heard, "but it's notarized, it has to be legal." When I ask why they did something on their own, clients have told me they "read it on the Internet" or "a neighbor said that's how it's done."

It's a common and growing problem. While the intentions might be good, members of the public need to realize it is extremely important to seek legal and other professional advice when dealing with items of legal significance.

Common situations involving DIY legal issues include the sale or transfer of real estate (especially with land contracts or deeds), estate planning and general small business contracts. Hopefully, the issue is caught in time to be fixed; but sometimes, it is simply too late as someone has died, or a party that must sign off on the correction is uncooperative and a court might not have the ability to step in.

I once had an elderly couple come to me for estate planning services. Before seeking my advice, they drafted a deed themselves (with information from the Internet) adding their two children to the title of their marital property (which had significant value and was the primary asset of their estates), as joint tenants with full rights of survivorship. Why? Because they heard that's how you avoid probate.

Afterwards, they had a falling out with one child, and now they wanted to disinherit him. Unfortunately, that type of real estate transfer is tough, if not impossible, to fully correct without the consent of the son, the transferee.

The elderly couple was shocked that they couldn't just change their minds and sign a new deed they thought they still owned the property outright, and that the transfer to their children was only upon their deaths (like a ladybird deed). They did not realize the serious consequences of what they thought was a simple action.

In this specific situation, the son refused all attempts to sign over his property interest. In other cases, we've been able to fully overcome the DIY nightmare, but it's often at a much greater expense than if an experienced and competent attorney was involved from the outset.

I've seen this situation time and time again over my 45-year career, but the frequency has increased dramatically in the last decade. Often, the "simple" transactions cause the most headaches.

Consumers should be proactive and seek professional advice up front, and attorneys should be ready to explain the possible consequences if they are ever approached by a consumer that is thinking about proceeding without professional legal advice. Of course, attorneys should also be prepared to untangle any mess clients create on their own.

DIY legal issues can be a lot worse than a DIY home improvement project with ramifications that can last a lifetime or beyond.


Philip J. Curtis is an attorney with Curtis, Curtis & Brelinski, P.C. in Jackson, focusing his practice on business law, employee benefits, estate planning, probate and trust administration, tax and real estate.

Published: Mon, Jul 13, 2015