Beware of Do-it-Yourself Legal Work

Often, our job as lawyers involves fixing problems after the fact, as opposed to proactively planning and documenting transactions. Most of the time, 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 it, clients have told me they read it on the Internet or a neighbor told them.

While the intentions might be good, it is extremely important to seek legal and other professional advice when dealing with items of legal significance. Common situations include the sale or transfer of real estate (especially with land contracts or DIY 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 power to step in.

For example, I once had an elderly married couple come to me for estate planning services. Before seeking my advice, they added 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 they were coming to see me to disinherit him.

Unfortunately, that type of real estate transfer is irreversible without the consent of the transferee (son). Michigan law prohibits a court from even ordering the property sold and the proceeds split (called a partition action). They were shocked that they couldn’t change their minds, after all, they thought they still owned the property outright, and that the transfer to their children was only upon their deaths. Unfortunately, they drafted the deed themselves (or downloaded it from the Internet), and did not realize the consequences of their actions.

I’ve seen this time and time again. In this situation, the son refused all attempts to sign over his property interest; but in other cases, we’ve thankfully been able to 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.

Often, the “simple” transactions cause the most headaches. I highly encourage you to be proactive and seek professional advice.

Please do not hesitate to contact us. We are here to serve you.