3 Tips for Filling out Legal Forms
Every day I spend time reading, writing, and filling out legal forms. Everyone hates filling out forms and I feel your pain 100%. The worst thing is being handed a clipboard in the doctor’s office with ten pages of boxes to check, lines to fill out, and explanations to write. Your eyes gloss over right away and you let out a big sigh.
You don’t want to fill out every box. You don’t want to explain every detail. You don’t want to go into your purse or wallet and pull out cards. Unfortunately, forms are a huge part of our lives, whether they’re electronic or on paper. I don’t care whether you’re in court somewhere in Texas or New York City. Legal documents are no different. These are my 3 tips for filling out legal forms.
Tip #1 – Do not leave any blank spaces on the form
When I’m sitting in my office with a client or sitting with them in Court, we usually have a small stack of forms to fill out. The forms have many spaces, boxes to check, and lines to fill in. Each of those three things are on the form for a reason. Skipping parts that don’t apply to you will not help the person who will accept the form from you. If I hand a form to a client to fill out, often there are blank spaces on the form when they give it back to me.
The Problem… If there are blank spaces on the form, I don’t know whether you saw the space, understood the question, or that part of the form didn’t apply to you. If something does not apply, write a simple “N/A.” This lets the reader of the form know that you read that part, understood it, and answered that part of the form.
Tip #2 – Read the entire form, from top to bottom
I always recommend that my clients read all the forms from the top to bottom. In school, I remember my professor hiding details in the instructions at top. The idea went that most people don’t read the instructions in the top paragraph. One professor wrote in that paragraph “if you put a star next to your name, I’ll give you an extra 10 points.” Many students didn’t read this part so they missed the extra points.
Now imagine that you have a document in front of you that is more serious than a school exam. The document can affect your life and have long lasting consequences. The document may be a plea agreement which explains other collateral consequences of your case by accepting the plea. Don’t miss important details by choosing not to read parts of your legal paperwork. Some of those details can work in your favor later on, such as getting your record sealed after your case is over.
Tip #3 – If you don’t understand something, ask for an explanation
This one is probably the most important of the three tips. Most people refuse to ask anyone for help out of fear that they’ll look foolish. Trust me, you won’t look foolish. Legal forms and documents can be complicated, even for attorneys. There are a lot of situations where wording, spacing, or the information asked for can be confusing. It’s much better to ask for an explanation now, than to regret the outcome later when you refused to speak up. My job is to explain things to you about your case, every step of the way. This includes the time we spend sitting together filling out paperwork. If there is something that I don’t understand, I will find out the answer so that you and I are both informed, and on the same page. I wouldn’t want to sign something I didn’t understand. I wouldn’t ask any different from you.
Keep these tips in mind and legal documents won’t seem quite as difficult.