Tried creating your own legal documents with online templates lately? Or ever?
It may be time to have an attorney look them over.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of People of Midtown magazine.

Over the years I’ve represented many Oklahomans through many probates.

Thanks to the Internet, opportunities abound for one to get oneself into a real and lasting legal mess. Vast template libraries and websites professing to assist in the creation of sound legal documents are a click away. Enticed by convenience and low prices, folks end up creating template-derived documents that lack the legal nuance to hold up long term. The problems often go undiscovered until the individual has passed and it’s therefore too late to amend the offending document. Loved ones and family are then charged with sorting through the fall out. To better illustrate, let me relate the cautionary true story of a man who unknowingly built his house on someone else’s property. Names have been changed to protect the embarrassed.

After a successful career, Sam set out to find a piece of land on which to retire and build his dream home. He soon found the perfect spot but it was owned by a real estate company. Over the course of Sam’s career he, and coworker we’ll call Ben, had frequently used online templates to create their legal documents. So, to create the documents necessary to purchase the real estate company that owned the land, Sam again turned to online templates. The sale was finalized, the house was built, and all was seemingly well. Years later when Ben passed away, Sam learned from Ben’s family that the estate planning documents Ben had created online were a mess. Ben’s estate was in probate, his wishes were not met and the family was in turmoil. Concerned, Sam then brought his own self-created estate planning documents to my firm for review. We discovered that Sam’s documents contained many of the same problems as did Ben’s. Further, we discovered that Sam had built his house on a piece of property that he did not actually own. The document he had created to finalize the sale was riddled with errors and was legally invalid. Had these errors surfaced after Sam’s death, it’s not known whether his wife would have been able to cure the defects. Thankfully, we were able to locate the previous owners of the real estate company who were now living abroad. They agreed to sign corrected documents and a legal battle never ensued.

Although the specifics of Sam’s story might be unusual, mistakes made by people untrained and unfamiliar with estate planning legal documents are not uncommon. I always encourage my clients to consider the magnitude of what is resting on their estate planning documents, and what is contingent upon their soundness. You hire a professional to cut your hair. You hire a professional to fix your car. When it comes to creating estate planning documents, my number one piece of advice is simple- hire an attorney to do it for you. Why? Because hiring an attorney is the best way to ensure that your wishes are carried out and that your family enjoys a probate-free future.

-Tom Sullivent, Founder and Attorney at Sullivent Law Firm.

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