Beware of using standard legal forms – a trap for the unwary

Some legal transactions may be accomplished using standard forms, containing boilerplate language. For example, in many cases, selling your car, in a private transaction, is fairly straightforward. You may be able to use a standard bill of sale outlining the key terms of the transaction such as the sales price of the car, payment terms, the actual odometer reading, whether the car is being sold “as is” or with a warranty, and the names of the buyer and seller. Standard agreements for selling a car are available from a number of sources, both online and offline. The process for transferring the title of the car to the new owner is also available online and offline.

Jonathan C. Noble, Esquire
Jonathan C. Noble, Esquire

Conversely, nearly all family law matters are more complex than selling a car. The facts are almost never identical in any two family law matters. Many standard forms in the context of a family law matter must either be significantly edited and/or redrafted in order to properly address your specific situation, as well as comply with the current law in your jurisdiction. Preparing the documents needed to sell your car and preparing a marital settlement agreement are like night and day. The bottom line: Boilerplate family law documents should be viewed with caution.

Marital Settlement Agreements – a Potential Trap for the Unwary

Any agreement is only as good as it is enforceable. A marital settlement agreement (also referred to as a property settlement agreement) is one document that should clearly spell out the rights and the responsibilities of the parties. One main goal should be to have the agreement be written in clear terms, with definite timelines. Many boilerplate or standard legal documents are not clearly written. Some boilerplate forms were written many years ago and the laws have since changed. Some were written by attorneys (or even non-attorneys), who are not familiar with the laws in your particular state. Boilerplate or standard family law agreements are not designed to be, and simply cannot be familiar with the facts of your specific family law matter.

Why this is important to know

Using a “standard” or “boilerplate” marital settlement agreement can lead to problems months or even years later, especially if you need to try to enforce the terms of your marital settlement agreement. A well written and drafted agreement can be thought of as a small investment in protecting your rights based on the circumstances of your particular situation. You do not want to be in a position of being forced to litigate the interpretation of a poorly written, or boilerplate marital settlement agreement that was merged or incorporated into your divorce decree. One main goal is to be able to move on from divorce. You do not want to get mired in revisiting economic issues from the past that should have been resolved in your marital settlement agreement.

Every legal matter is unique, especially in the area of family law. Nothing can replace consulting with an attorney who is familiar with all of the specific facts of your family law case, and who is familiar with the current law in your jurisdiction.

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