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Posted: 11:45 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010

Legal Self-Help Sites by State

When is a lawyer really necessary?



There's a lot of debate about when to go to a lawyer. The truth is that in some situations they're necessary, and in others they're not.

Take the situation of making a will. Most people don't have a will or they have one that's grossly outdated. The danger in either situation is that the state may decide who gets your money, or your kids could end up with that relative who is your worst nightmare when you die! People are usually reluctant to do a will because they're either afraid of death, afraid of lawyers or both. One simple way to do a will is with Nolo.com.  

This legal self-help service features the highly respected WillMaker software. This may be a good option if you have simple family arrangements and aren't filthy rich. WillMaker asks you questions and then pops back answers to direct you as you make your will. But if you get confused, I'd advise stopping and seeing a lawyer. Or you could also proceed with WillMaker and then later pay a lawyer to review the will you create.

You'd definitely want to hire a lawyer from the get go if you have family members who will squabble over money, or if you have any kind of complicated family arrangements. Ditto with divorces. In some states, you can obtain a divorce yourself by using a kiosk at a courthouse. This may be a wise choice if there are no assets to fight about and there are few debts. Just be sure to hire a lawyer if there are any possible custody or financial issues.

Lawyers get angry at me whenever I talk about this topic. The Texas Bar Association actually got the state legislature to make it a crime for Texans to purchase a book from Nolo.com. But Nolo got so much publicity in the process that their sales skyrocketed elsewhere. On the other end of the spectrum, Arizona is one state that's very progressive and where you don't always need a lawyer. Likewise, paralegals in California will prepare documents for you to file at a courthouse. Just for the record, I am not anti-lawyer. You just have to be Clark Smart about when you really need one! If you're considering going the legal self-help route, several states have websites set up to help you: