February 1, 2014 by sandyonyourside
So you’re representing yourself and you need a legal document–maybe a complaint for divorce, incorporation papers, a power of attorney, an apartment lease, and so on. Like everyone else you start with Google. There you quickly discover dozens of companies promising to provide exactly the legal forms you need, and even with filling them out. All for a fee.
Stop right there, before you spend a dime!!! There’s a very good chance you can find exactly the legal document you need, for free, all without moving from your computer. What’s more, you can be sure you’re getting the very latest version of the legal document you need, and not some outdated version that the forms company didn’t know enough to update. Here are six tips to save you money on legal documents. The hyperlinked examples I’ve included are just that, examples, intended to show you the wide range of legal document available for free from the most reputable sources: you’ll easily find plenty more available in year area.
1. Check out official government websites. Every state court system has a website, which will direct you to pages where you can find and download commonly-used forms. The quality of state court websites varies widely, with California, Minnesota, Maine, and Arizona being some good examples of comprehensive, user-friendly sites. The forms usually come with detailed instructions, and sometimes they are available in other languages. Some state court websites, often in conjunction with legal services organizations, offer interactive interview options that allow you to complete your court forms online by answering a series of questions. E-filing, alas, is still in the future for most, but not all, state courts, so you may have to snail-mail the documents or walk them in.
Another good place to find court forms and help in filling them out is your state’s legal aid organization’s online help site.
Your state’s Secretary of State‘s office should have basic incorporation forms online.
You can often find model powers of attorney and health care proxies on the website of your state’s health department, or even a hospital website. (And check out this informative guide to health care directives from the Mayo Clinic.)
3. Ask a librarian. Check out the website of your state law library. Most of them can assist you over the phone, by email, and even by instant message, and they can deliver the documents you need by mail, email, or fax. Check out the Maryland State Law Library as an example of what’s typically available. State law libraries are a great but often under-used resource for self-represented litigants, as I’ll elaborate on in a later post. Your local public library or law school library may be able to help in identifying and providing you with legal forms.
4. Go to the form books. If what you’re looking for is a simple will or contract other legal document you can’t find from the websites I’ve listed above, go to the legal form books. That’s where your attorney would start (on your dime). Form books are available in law libraries and law school libraries, where the librarians can direct you to the most up-to-date editions. Keep in mind that the legal forms you find in form books are just models. They may or may not be appropriate for your situation. Fortunately, form books also contain alternative forms to cover different circumstances. But you really need to think through your situation, and read what the form book has to say about the model you want to use, to make sure you’re getting what you want and what you need.
5. Contact the clerk’s office. Clerk’s offices in general are understaffed and over-worked. Some have limited the hours in which they take phone calls from the public. But if all else fails, you may want to contact the clerk’s office at your local courthouse and ask if they can fax, scan, or mail the court forms you need.
6. If you have trouble filling out any of the free legal documents you’ve obtained online, don’t despair. There are many free resources to help you out. Check your state court website to see if it offers a helpline, as Alaska’s does. Some courts or bar organizations also have Attorney for the Day programs, like this program in Utah, where you can consult with a volunteer attorney free of charge. Attorney for the day services are often not well-advertised to consumers, so you may want to check with your local courthouse or bar association to find out if this service exists and when it is available. Court services centers, like those in Connecticut, offer help filling out forms to walk-ins and over the phone. Your local legal services organization or law school may also offer helplines or seminars that can be helpful.
With so many free legal resources at your fingertips, there’s no need to shell out tens, maybe hundreds, of dollars to the online legal document companies. You have better things to do with your money.
Take Control of Your Case, and feel free to send in your questions.
All the best,