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The Cutting Edge: Focus on Technology | PC FOCUS

Software, Web Put Do-It-Yourself, Basic Lawyering Into Practice

August 28, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

For anyone accused of a crime or involved in a major lawsuit, there's no substitute for a good lawyer. But when it comes to drawing up basic legal documents, an attorney sometimes really can be replaced by a computer.

I own a rental house, and when it's time to draft a new lease, I run my copy of Quicken Family Lawyer (available for Mac and Windows; $29.95). The 2001 version of the program, on sale now, comes with more than 150 legal documents and forms.

The program is published by Mattel Interactive, which licenses the use of the name "Quicken" from Intuit Inc., the company that publishes Quicken financial software. You can purchase the program on a CD-ROM or get it online at the company's Web site, http://www.mattelinteractive.com, if you have the time and patience to download a 15-megabyte file.

Filling in the details of the lease is as easy as answering a few questions. The software prompts you for the names of the tenants, the amount of the rent, the rent's due date and the location where the tenants need to send their checks. It also asks about the security deposit, pets, furnishings and everything else it needs to complete the lease. When it's done, you can either print the document or save it in a format that you can edit with a word-processing program.

The last time I rented out the house, I created a draft of the document and e-mailed it to the tenants. They asked for some changes that I incorporated into the final version, which I e-mailed back for them to print and sign. As a precaution, I read the final version carefully to be sure that they didn't make any changes that I hadn't approved. Also, if you do edit a document, you need to be very careful about making any changes that could affect the document's enforceability.

Like a real lawyer, the software can also help you decide what documents you and your family need. A Document Finder prompts you for information, including your marital status, whether you have children and whether you own or rent your home. Then it recommends documents that you might want to consider creating. Select one, complete a virtual interview, and the software creates the document for you. The program also comes with the Plain Language Law Dictionary, which defines legal terms, phrases and procedures.

Documents include stock letters for demanding payment as well as handling credit issues, real estate transactions, employment agreements and simple contracts.

The Health & Medical section of the program provides a number of important documents, including a health-care power of attorney, a letter for filing an insurance claim, an organ donation form and both a living will and living-will revocation.

It also has an estate-planning section that allows you to create various types of wills and trusts with such specific options as "Will--Remarried with Minor Children" and "Will--Grandparent with Grandparent's Trust."

If this isn't enough, Mattel Interactive also publishes Quicken WillWriter 2001, which is designed specifically for estate planning. Nolo.com Inc., a Berkeley company, also publishes an excellent estate-planning program, WillMaker 7.0. But frankly, if your situation is too complicated for the estate-planning module in Quicken Family Lawyer, you should probably contact a real lawyer.

In addition to software, there are Web sites that provide access to legal documents. Legaldocs (http://www.legaldocs.com) lets you choose from a pretty wide variety. Some are free, but most range in price from $3.50 to $27.75. You create documents by answering on-screen questions, and when you're done, the site generates a document that you can print or copy and paste into a word-processing program. There is no charge to answer the questions and view a summary of your document, but you will be asked for a credit card before it generates the complete document. The advantage to this is that you pay only for what you need. But if you think you might need more than one or two documents, you're better off buying a program.

You can get free business, tax and legal forms from http://www.lawform.com. The forms aren't interactive, but you can copy them into a word-processing program and add your information. Although not as extensive as Legaldocs, the site does offer employment contracts, partnership agreements, promissory notes, power of attorney documents and others.

It's Legal (http://www.itslegal.com) is a service of Mattel. Not surprisingly, it doesn't give you documents you can download but instead suggests you buy a copy of the company's Quicken Family Lawyer program. I'll forgive the marketing ploy because the site nevertheless has a lot of useful material, including its "Legal Information Network," which provides extensive information about wills and trusts, real estate, homeownership, consumer law, family law, employment and health and medical issues. The site also has a good selection of links to other law sites as well as a "Lawyer Locator" in case you need some serious help.

If you're divorced or thinking about getting a divorce, check out Split-Up.com (http://www.split-up.com). This well-crafted site has information about custody, alimony and property division, financial and emotional advice, as well as state-specific information about family law. The site lets you purchase software specifically designed for people involved in a divorce. It also provides an area to chat with others and, thankfully, advice for those who are still trying to save their marriages.

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Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at larry.magid@latimes.com. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com. Recent PC Focus columns are available at http://www.latimes.com/pcfocus.

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