Are you legally healthy? Chances are your answer is "What?" "I guess so." "How would I know?" or some variation of all three.
Legal health is not a generally accepted concept. Preventive medicine and preventive dentistry are well-established. Periodic dental and physical examinations have been recommended for decades. Financial planning has gained wide acceptance in recent years, but preventive law is still an unfamiliar term (even to many lawyers) and "legal checkup" and "legal health" are even less well known.
But it's only a matter of time before all three are overworked buzzwords, because the idea behind preventive law, legal health and legal checkups is sound:
Expert evaluation of your legal situation (legal health) now can prevent many legal problems from developing later.
Check Your Legal Health with this Q&A
The Boy Scout motto says it even more succinctly: "Be Prepared." Review the questions and answers below on legal health check-ups:
Q: What's legal health? It sounds good, but what does it really mean?
A: Legal health means not having any legal problems. But, like disease, legal problems often exist without the victim being aware of any symptoms. An expert can often detect problems that would otherwise go unnoticed until they became serious. Some legal problems are like common colds, and will resolve themselves without a lawyer; others grow like cancer and early detection can be crucial to successful treatment. Still others arise suddenly but could have been avoided through proper planning, just as proper diet and exercise can help prevent heart attack and stroke.
Preventive law seeks to maintain legal health, partly through early detection of existing problems, but even more through proper structuring of the client's affairs. Preventive health includes safe water, adequate diet and inoculations. Preventive law includes public statutes, private contracts and insurance.
Q: How does a legal check-up help preventive law?
A: In two ways. First, as an early detection device for legal problems that already exist but that haven't become acute. A dental checkup may reveal cavities that don't yet hurt. A physical exam may detect high blood pressure or cancer. A legal checkup may reveal an unclaimed benefit or an out-of-date will.
Second, as a tool for reaching goals. A legal checkup gives your lawyer a snapshot of your life situation. That's essential if the lawyer is to help you map the way from where you are to where you want to be. In this respect legal checkups are even more useful than medical ones. Except for athletes, few of us have goals that require health planning, but family, career, business and financial goals usually have legal aspects and can benefit from planning. Preventive law and financial planning have a lot in common.
Q: It sounds so sensible. Is legal checkup really new? Why isn't it better known?
A: The phrase is new, but there are three areas where something very similar is usually done: wills, divorce and bankruptcy. The focus in each is different, but all involve listing property, evaluating rights and duties, and making choices that the law will honor. All involve legal planning. In business matters legal planning has always been important. Lawyers for corporations usually spend much more time on preventive law than on remedial measures.
We can only speculate why legal checkup and preventive law are just beginning to become widespread. Possible reasons:
Remedial measures are more lucrative than preventive ones. Restrictions on lawyers asking for business. The increasing complexity of society and of people's financial affairs. Increasing affluence.
Q: Let's get specific. What are the steps in a legal checkup?
A: There are four, summarized by the acronym GARD:
- Gather important documents and organize relevant information into a coherent picture of your legal situation.
- Analyze the picture in light of your goals.
- Recommend specific changes and note areas that bear watching.
- Do whatever is required to help assure legal health.
Note that both you and your lawyer have a role in each part of the process.
Q: Can you say more?
A: Yes. No two lawyers or legal services plans will conduct a legal checkup exactly the same way, and no two clients are in exactly the same legal situation, but here's what's usually involved in each step:
This can be the most valuable part of the process. It usually has two parts:
1. Locating important documents: Simply locating important papers can help prevent future trouble. So can discovering that one is missing. Looking at the papers may remind you of things you've forgotten to do or questions you need to ask.
2. Completing a questionnaire: You could think of the questionnaire as the camera that takes your legal snapshot. The lawyer is its builder and seller; you're both photographer and subject. If the questionnaire is skillfully done it can take the required picture, but it's up to you to make sure the shot is properly framed, focused and exposed. Both of you share responsibility to see that the camera is neither too simple to get the shot nor too complex for you to use.
Expect the questionnaire to cover the following areas:
- Family situation, including relatives outside the household
- Employment, including benefits and pension rights
- Finances: debts, investments, bank accounts
- Home and other real estate
- Vehicles, all types
- Insurance, all types
- Business interests
- Other, including citizenship, military services, taxes, hobbies and pets.
Whether the questionnaire takes fifteen minutes or an hour and fifteen, it's time well spent.
Your lawyers will examine your completed questionnaire for legal weak points, inconsistencies and indications of unmet current and future legal need. You may be asked to allow some documents to be copied. The lawyer, a paralegal or secretary may contact you for clarification or further information. Be sure your lawyer has what you feel is a fair, complete picture of your legal situation before you meet to discuss recommendations. You don't want advice based on incomplete or misleading information.
You and your lawyer will need to meet to discuss the analysis and any recommendations. You will probably receive a written report either before or during this meeting. Be sure you understand it. Don't neglect to ask questions for fear of seeming ignorant or suspicious. It's your legal health at stake.
Recommendations are most likely in these areas:
- Will. If you don't have one or it's out of date, the questionnaire contains most of the information needed to draft your will. All you probably need to do is decide on beneficiaries, an executor, and perhaps a guardian.
- Insurance. Inappropriate or inadequate coverage is a common finding.
- Real estate. Joint ownership is often inappropriate or misunderstood.
- Agreements. One area is written contracts or notes that have been modified orally.
- Business. Part-time and hobby businesses can often benefit from tax advice and buy-sell contracts.
- Financial planning. Often needed in light of new family or financial circumstances.
It's unlikely that you will be advised that expensive legal work is required. It's remedial measures that are costly, not preventive ones. So follow your lawyer's advice and pat yourself on the back for helping GUARD your family and future.
Source: National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services