A phrase that I have heard in my legal career several times—and which I am sure most of you have heard—is, “I never sign anything that I don’t understand.” This is one of the layperson’s maxims of the law, much like “Book’em, Danno!” But is it truly wise advice?
I think that if, for instance, you were buying a used car, you might want to understand the import of the paperwork that you were signing. You might want to consult with an attorney and find out what your recourse is if the car does not live up to what was promised.
Ironically, few people do this. Instead, the person reads the contract until he starts to get bored with the legalese, which is probably after two paragraphs. He then signs the contract and drives the car off the lot.
When I draft documents for clients, I often draft very comprehensive documents. For instance, a power of attorney that I draft may be fourteen pages long. This can be compared with a power of attorney that you might buy at an office supply store that is two pages long.
The average person would probably prefer the two page power of attorney over the fourteen page power of attorney. To them, the two page power of attorney is “simple.” He feels that he can understand what is in the two page document but is simply lost in the legalese of the fourteen page power of attorney. He falls back on the legal maxim and doesn’t want to sign anything he doesn’t understand.
In my opinion, if we only did or used things that we understood, most of use would be living in rickety hovels, shivering in the cold. Let’s face it, most of the things we do every day we don’t understand and many of those things could kill us.
For instance, I am typing this article on a computer. While I understand how to use some computer programs, I have no idea how a computer works. It is a complete mystery to me. If my computer stopped working, even if it were for a simple reason, I would probably have to call a technician in to fix it, and even if he explained what he did to fix it, I would have little idea as to what he was talking about.
Today, I will drive a car to work. I have no idea how a car works. If my car broke down, I would have no idea how to fix it. Yet, every day, I hop into my car and drive down the road in excess of 60 m.p.h. along with thousands of other cars without knowing how my car or their cars work and without knowing whether my fellow drivers know how to drive, got a sufficient amount of sleep, or are impaired by drugs or alcohol.
When I go on vacation, I get into a plane, essentially a heavy metal tube with large jet engines strapped to the wings, and go five miles into the sky, travelling at hundred of miles an hour. I have absolutely no idea how a plane can fly through the air, yet I actually voluntarily get on the plane in order to transport my family and me to a pleasurable vacation.
I make these points because every day each of us does things that we don’t understand and many of those things are much more dangerous than signing a Will or a power of attorney. Do I think you should ask your lawyer questions about your documents? Absolutely. But I don’t think you should limit what you are willing to do legally to what you are capable of understanding.
For instance, I am a Certified Elder Law Attorney. Every day, I deal with people who have life and death issues. I have had a number of experiences with the issues that people face, but I have not experienced every issue that a person may face with regard to these issues. For that reason, I believe that estate planning documents (Will, powers of attorney, living wills) should be comprehensive. Well-drafted documents are designed to addressed both the expected and the unexpected, those things you understand and those things you do not.
If the document doesn’t address an issue, then the person you named to make decisions for you in the documents may not be able to handle the issue for you. It is far better to error on the side of caution than to make the document “simple” (insert “brief”) just so that a person feels that he understands everything in the document.