Plain English Legal Documents Aim to Simplify Legal Speak
Complicated legal jargon may be fine for some folks, but using plain English makes complex information an easier read.
In 1936, Fred Rodell, a professor of law at Yale University, said, “There are two things wrong with almost all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content. That, I think, about covers the ground.”
After graduating from law school and spending my career in the business world, I have always felt comfortable with legal documents, a necessity when it comes to making sure your financial affairs are in order, but grossly misunderstood by most. But are legal documents necessary? More importantly, are they enough?
Cut the Clutter, Gain Clarity
For me, complicated legal documents are a necessity. My legacy is critically important to me, and when my time is up, I will be leaving my assets IN TRUST. Thus, I’ll be providing my loved ones with access to their shares but have the assurance that the principal will remain protected from divorce, lawsuits, and bankruptcy and will ultimately pass to the next generation of my family.
These matters may not be of importance to you, in which case, there may be no reason to use fancy legal documents. And, there is no requirement that you hire an attorney to provide you with elaborate legal documents. If you feel that you can cover everything you need to, you can write your very own legal documents, which will be legally binding, as long as they are properly executed and witnessed according to the laws of your State. I am not recommending that you take this course of action, but I want you to be aware. In most cases, however, it is wise to rely on the advice of an expert.
In any event, I think it’s essential to have Plain English Legal Documents (PELD) to translate legalese into English and, more importantly, to communicate from your heart and to be sure that your children/heirs understand your true intentions. Unlike legal documents, there are no formalities when it comes to PELD, so here are some of my thoughts and suggestions.
The Heart of the Matter
First, tell those you care about how much you love them. Keep in mind that this will be your final communication, and it will last forever. Think about it, change it, leave out any negativity, and speak from your heart. You can have one letter, or several, whatever your preference. There is no right or wrong way.
I never got to say goodbye to my mother, and it still saddens me to this day. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, there are way too many times that people miss out on this opportunity, and it’s way too important to run the risk of leaving certain things unsaid.
Your Need-to-Know List
Second, I want to leave an inventory for my wife and children. I admit that I have some secrets that will remain between my wife and me during our lifetimes, but I prefer that nothing gets lost in the shuffle in the event of a catastrophe. So, I suggest that you put together a list including the name of your attorney, other essential advisors, bank accounts, investments, safe deposit boxes, secret stashes, insurance policies, and anything and everything you can think of that’s important to you. And keep this list updated, at least once each year.
Tell It Like It Is
Third, legal matters confuse most people. When you leave assets in a trust, the initial reaction is too often a lack of confidence, or knowledge, or common sense, or trust. Gosh, that couldn’t be further from the truth, and I would be heartbroken if my children were unaware of my true intentions —to provide them with the gift of financial security no matter what goes wrong in their lives.
So, tell them what your intentions are, why your will is written the way it is, but, unlike your will, put it in English. Ask your attorney to help if necessary.
Actions Have Consequences
Fourth, I want my children to know that there are specific rules or limitations, and if they break the rules, there could be consequences. Continue with the loving tone; there is no reason to be obnoxious. For me, expressing this is consistent with my intentions as a parent; I have always cared about and provided for my children, and this would be an integral part of a lasting legacy.
As I continue to think about this, other matters of importance will arise, and I can amend my PELD without having to visit my attorney and listening to the cash register ringing in the background. While I am fortunate to have been advised by David Pratt, who I think is the best estate planning attorney in the business, he will be the first to admit that he is not needed by one and all.
If there’s one message to remember, don’t leave the most important things unsaid!