Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Florida Probate for Small Estates - Summary Administration of Estate

Many Floridians don't realize that a family member or other interested person is allowed to settle an estate. It is a myth that an attorney must be involved in every estate. If an estate is small enough to qualify for the Summary Administration of Estate process a family member or interested party may be able to initiate and handle the paperwork pro se. In general, Summary Administration of Estate is appropriate if the value of the estate is less than $75,000 excluding exempt property. The summary administration process is also available if the decedent passed away more than two years prior to filing the Petition for Summary Administration. 

It seems that nothing in Florida that has to do with the courts is easy. Some states require only one single document called an Affidavit of Small Estate. But, in Florida a set of documents is almost always required. The probate court also expects the filer to submit proposed orders along with the petition. This rule differs from the regular rules of civil procedure which generally require that orders are not to be filed in the court record.

When a family member dies, the first step in settling the estate is to determine whether there is a will. Sometimes the family knows exactly where the will is, and other times it takes a search through the decedent's papers in order to locate it. Other times the will is in a safe deposit box. In Florida there is no requirement to file a will with the court until after someone dies. If there is a will, then the estate is considered "testate". If there is no will, the estate is considered "intestate".

The next step after determining whether there is a will or not, guides the whole process. If the person died with no will, then the rules of intestate succession apply. Florida Statute 732 lays out the exact order of inheritance. If there is a will the wishes of the decedent are carried out as closely as possible. For example, in Florida you can't disinherit a surviving spouse -- even if the will says so.

The next project is to determine what the probate assets are. When there is a will, sometimes the assets are listed, and sometimes not. Sometimes assets have been acquired since the will was signed, and sometimes the will's language is very general. Language like I leave all that I own to my brother, John Adams; and leave nothing to my brother George Washington, is perfectly legal. While you cannot disinherit a spouse, you can certainly disinherit anyone else, including children. It is considered best practice if someone is to be disinherited to name that person in the will to avoid a possible will contest that could claim the disinheritance was a mistake.

A probate asset is property that was owned by the decedent in his or her name only. Real property in more than one person's name may or may not be a probate asset. If the form of ownership with another person or persons is "tenants in common" it is a probate asset. If it is owned by another person or persons as "joint tenants with right of survivorship" or owned with the surviving spouse, then the property is not a probate asset. Joint bank accounts are not probate assets. A bank account with a transfer on death (TOD) designation is not a probate asset. Life insurance with a person's name as beneficiary is not a probate asset; but life insurance naming "the estate of ..." is a probate asset.

And, next, determine whether the estate is indebted. If there is credit card debt, some credit card companies will write off the debt, others won't. It never hurts to ask. The credit card companies that will write off the debt, usually require nothing more than a written request and a copy of the death certificate.

Florida Statute 735.203


(1) A petition for summary administration may be filed by any beneficiary or person nominated as personal representative in the decedent’s will offered for probate. The petition must be signed and verified by the surviving spouse, if any, and any beneficiaries except that the joinder in a petition for summary administration is not required of a beneficiary who will receive a full distributive share under the proposed distribution. However, formal notice of the petition must be served on a beneficiary not joining in the petition.

Despite the plain language of the above statute some clerks of court and even some judges are adamant that a Petition for Summary Administration of Estate must be signed and filed by an attorney. As far as we know, Sarasota County and Washington County refuse to allow pro se litigants to file summary administration of estate. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

The ABA is Preaching to the Choir

A recent article by Lisa Needham, "A Quick Look at the ABA’s Report on the Future of Legal Services" (8/9/16) published on www.lawyerist.com made the following statement.


"The access to justice gap remains enormous. Legal aid organizations are overtaxed, pro bono representation can’t meet the need, and other initiatives have fallen far short".

My observations and replies are as follows:

I have been writing about the justice gap for some time, and it is far more than a "gap".More like a canyon. A gorge. An abyss. Legal aid organizations are overtaxed. For every person helped, another is turned away. The 2009 ABA report on the Justice Gap reported: 

" Lack of resources, however, continues to be the major factor why LSC-funded programs turn away half of those seeking help. Closing the justice gap will require a multifaceted approach that includes increased funding by federal and state governments, private funders and concerned private parties, and increased pro bono contributions by individual lawyers." Now nearly seven years later, little has changed.

Pro bono representation can't meet the need. Although, in theory, attorneys are required to provide 20 hours per year in pro bono services, Palm Beach County officially allows attorneys to buy out their pro bono obligation for as little as $350 per year. Many attorneys charge $350 per hour, one hour of time versus 20 hours of work is a simple economic choice. The following is posted on the Palm Beach County Bar Associations website:

"In Palm Beach County, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County is the designated agency for administering Florida's Pro Bono Plan. That plan, outlined in Rule 4-6.1, Rules Regulating the Florida Bar, describes lawyers' professional responsibility for pro bono service. The professional responsibility may be discharged by: (1) annually providing at least 20 hours of pro bono legal service to the poor; or (2) making an annual contribution of at least $350 to a legal aid organization." 

Other initiatives have fallen short. Florida's Commission on Access to Justice has been discussing and debating various initiatives for the past year or two with very little actual change or improvement. Florida legal document preparers are, at best, routinely overlooked as part of the solution. And, at worst, routinely intimidated from prospering and growing their businesses due to the Florida Bar's continuous intimidation. More than one FALDP member has closed up shop, specifically because of the threat of unfounded UPL allegations. Until the day we demand that the Florida Bar recognizes that document preparers are here to stay, that we provide a sought after and necessary service, and we do not seek to take work away from attorneys -- we, as business professionals, will remain disenfranchised, vulnerable, and ineffective.


I now ask FALDP members and all document preparers to stand with me and demand that our right to be let alone be upheld, and let us be free to pursue our livelihood without interference. That our business disenfranchisement be transformed by the gratitude of our satisfied customers. Demand that our vulnerability become our strength in our willingness to assist our customers despite the zealots who would have us fined and imprisoned. And finally affect our customers, our communities, and the world in positive ways by continuing to assist consumers as is their right.  

Monday, July 18, 2016

Finding Legal Information

As the number of Florida pro se litigants increase, so does their need for research tools. Since pro se litigants are nonlawyers, with little or no knowledge of the law, access to understandable easy to use resources is vital. Many pro se litigants are low income and therefore unable to pay for a research service.

Legal research is rarely easy or straightforward. Because American law stems from many sources and develops in complex ways, thorough legal research requires technical proficiency. And because the law is dynamic and often unclear, thorough legal research also demands creativity and careful thought.

Many consumers can easily locate Florida Statutes when beginning their research, but identifying the issue first may be more daunting. Florida Statutes can be pulled up online as simply as entering the search string - Florida Statutes online - into your favorite search engine. However, the statutes themselves are not intuitively searchable, and its difficult to know what you're looking for until you find it.

Narrowing the search from the outset will help bring results that are more useful and less daunting than a more general search. For example, suppose you were a residential tenant and you had received a three day notice to pay or quit. But, you, the tenant, did not want to pay because the landlord had promised repeatedly to fix the roof, air conditioning, and the hot water heater and had never done anything. How can a tenant find guidance, (assuming the tenant cannot afford an attorney and does not qualify for legal aid)?

Many consumers will immediately take to the net to find answers. Some question and answer sites have good answers and some don't. Finding the statutes could be a good starting point. For that issue, use the search string - Florida Statutes online landlord tenant - and you'll arrive at Florida Statute Chapter 83 in its entirety. This is a lot to wade through, and it is a better idea to do some general research first to familiarize yourself with landlords and tenants rights and responsibilities.

Read some articles from authoritative sources. Authoritative sources are official government sources like the Florida Bar site, or the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.


In reading these articles you may learn under what circumstances a tenant is allowed to withhold rent and why. Spending time collecting facts, learning the vocabulary, and then analyzing the facts will save hours of time spent on dead end research. Many beginning researchers can find the governing laws, statute, or ordinances, but struggle to find out how to apply them. The actual procedure is often the most difficult part in practical terms. These two broad areas of law are referred to as substantive and procedural.

In our scenario, about the tenant having been served with a Three Day Notice to Pay or Quit, the researcher will soon find out through reading articles and Florida Statutes, that a tenant can withhold rent if his rented dwelling is uninhabitable. The researcher, may then wonder, what exactly is considered "uninhabitable"? Is having no air conditioning in July in Florida considered legally "uninhabitable"? We all may well agree that no A/C is torture, but the law doesn't say so. In fact, Florida landlord tenant laws demand that a dwelling have heat, but air conditioning is not a requirement for habitability. Hot water and a non-leaking roof are generally considered requirements for a habitable dwelling. See 83.51 Landlord’s obligation to maintain premises.— for more information.

http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=0000-0099/0083/Sections/0083.51.html

If a residential tenant needs to withhold rent because the landlord won't make necessary repairs or if the dwelling is uninhabitable, the rent should be deposited with in the registry of the court. And the tenant should have notified the landlord in writing previously and the landlord failed or refused to make things right. If the tenant has placed the rent in the registry of the court, and the judge finds that the landlord has neglected his obligation to maintain the property, the judge can then decide how the rent money should be disbursed.

Exact procedures for withholding rent can sometimes be found on the clerk of court's website (depending on the county). Pinellas Counts provides some good information and forms for landlords and tenants. Notes on the form for withholding rent state:

A Tenant cannot withhold rent from the Landlord without sending notice and allowing the Landlord time to cure the non-compliance, violation, or default of its obligations. Failure to send the required notice to th e Landlord has significant impact on a Tenant’s rights under the rental agreement and Florida Statutes. If the non-compliance is not remedied within the time period specified by statute (or such longer time as may be granted in your written rental agreement) and the Landlord’s failure to comply renders the dwelling unit untenantable and the Tenant vacates, the Tenant may vacate and withhold all rent, or, if the failure to comply does not render the dwelling unit untenantable, rent may be reduced in proportion to the loss of rental value caused by the non-compliance. If the Landlord’s violation of its obligations is not remedied, but the failure to cure the non-compliance does not render the dwelling unit untenantable, the Tenant may remain in the dwelling unit and the rent shall be reduced, until the violation is cured, by an amount in proportion to the loss of rental value caused by the failure to cure the violation. In any legal proceeding, however, the Tenant will have to pay all past due rent, and rent as it co mes due during the legal proceedings, into the registry of t he Court. The Tenant should, therefore, deposit all rent as it comes due in a separate bank account until the Tenant's disputes with the Landlord have been resolved.

For the text of Florida Statute 83.51(1), and the grounds for withholding rent, see the note to Form 3. SOURCE: Sections 83.56 and 83.60, Florida Statutes (2007).

Legal information can be found in many places. Diligent and persistent search pays off when you find the answers to troubling legal questions. Keep an open mind, frame the issues, and remember there may be more than one right answer to any legal question. Visit FALDP to find legal information for Florida pro se litigants.





Monday, July 4, 2016

Proud to Be an American

I am proud to live in America. I am happy for my luck to be born in the greatest country on earth. I accept America's flaws and foibles, and consider them minor compared to her many positive attributes. We have freedom. Not complete freedom. Complete freedom is chaos leading straight to anarchy. Laws are a framework, a structure for society.

The structure of laws, and yes, fear of punishment is absolutely necessary to hold society together. The evil nature of people must be kept in check for any society to thrive. Just like a child who knows no rules, a citizenry lacking laws grows anxious. A society that is too lax breeds disorder. If those citizens who are inherently evil, are not regularly kept in check, they will do their evil doings on those citizens who are mainly good.

American criminal and civil punishments are generally reasonable. Although we allow the death penalty for the most serious crimes, we do not cut off the hands of thieves. And, although a creditor may seize a debtor's property, debtors do not go to prison.

The taxes that we pay are fair and reasonable compared to other countries. Consider Sweden -- 59% personal income tax rate; or Aruba at 60%. Average personal income tax in the U.S. is 39%; England's is 45%.

We are a democratic republic. Americans can participate in a general election, or choose not to vote at all. Some countries require their citizens to vote or be subject to a fine or imprisonment. We elect our politicians to pass laws that benefit the most people most of the time. If those politicians fail to do so, we can choose to vote them out the next term. We are free to vote our conscience, or not to vote at all.

There are many more reasons to love America. I like the mantra - "Love it or Leave it". I firmly believe that it is the duty of every U.S. resident to respect our society and uphold the laws of our country. We were once considered a "melting pot" with people from all over the world coming together to form our great society. And although, it is just fine for each of us to honor our roots - we are all Americans.


Stand proud.


Friday, June 10, 2016

Uberish

I read Jordan Furlong's recent article, "What Makes Uber Tick, and What Lawyers Can Learn from It". He makes some good points, but, in my opinion, didn't go quite far enough. I view all of this from the other side of the lens.

Furlong's article states: " ... lawyers should consider Uber a powerful illustration of how and why traditional providers lose control of their markets. Uber doesn’t succeed because its rides are cheaper, or not primarily because of that. It succeeds because it corrects the many flaws in the traditional taxi model."

The world needs lawyers to represent and give legal advice. But, sometimes, people only need documents. The world needs document preparers to do just that - responsively, conveniently, and at a reasonable cost.

When a consumer hires a document preparer for divorce documents, for instance, the necessary documents are almost always prepared for a flat fee. Period. Consumers know before they pay, exactly how much the service will cost, and exactly what services they can expect to receive.

Lawyers traditionally charge by the almighty billable hour. Statewide, lawyers rates average over $200. per hour. Besides the fact that many litigants earn less than $200 per day, the billable hour practice is confusing and those minutes and minutiae quickly add up to exorbitant amounts and whoops there goes the retainer. Consumers don't know until they find out the hard way that their lawyer is going to bill them against the retainer for every email, every phone call, every document the lawyer reads related to their case, every document prepared in their case, every out of pocket expense, paralegal fees billed out at anywhere from $100 to $200 per hour, mediation, consultation, and court appearances. And before the client knows it, its time for mediation or a court hearing, and the lawyer is asking for more fees. If the consumer has no more lawyer money to spend, he goes it alone, pro se. And, that consumer, is usually not happy about the experience. Small wonder that lawyers have such a terrible reputation.

It happens all the time, that a lawyer withdraws at just these critical junctures, because the client has no more money to spend. Even though it is considered unethical for a lawyer to leave their client high and dry in this manner ... it happens all the time.


I agree with Furlong that no one wants to see lawyers disappear entirely, just as it is not practical for taxis to be replaced entirely by Uber drivers. There is a place in the market for taxis and Uber drivers; lawyers and document preparers. Consumers who choose Uber over a taxi do so for customer service, convenience, and price. In Uber's case the price for services may be similar to a taxi ride. Lawyer fees and document preparer fees are often miles apart. Document preparers often charge just 10% of what a lawyer would charge. Routine documents for things like, divorce and bankruptcy are the handiest comparisons.

For example, bankruptcy petition preparers charge around $200 to prepare the thirty some odd documents for a bankruptcy; lawyers typically charge around $2000. Initiating a Florida divorce with a lawyer may begin with a retainer of anywhere from $1500 to $10,000. Document preparers charge between $99 and $500. Initiating a divorce requires paperwork, and to be fair to lawyers in the comparison, lawyers services may also include legal advice and court appearances. At the low end for divorce lawyer's fees, $1500., if a client receives for that money - document preparation, service of process, filing fees, and some advice - he's actually done well. And the services he received, at least as far as price, would be roughly comparable to a legal document preparer. A document preparer at the high end, preparing divorce documents for $500, plus services of process (around $75), plus filing fee ($408. in most counties) and no advice or representation is about $900 - $600 less than the low end lawyer. So that consumer has $600 left to spend on legal consultations, or court appearances.

Furlong's article goes on to mention some partial solutions to delivery of legal services, listing some referral sources and alternate legal service providers. The Florida Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice repeatedly touts technological solutions as the path to legal access, and have been discussing better technology solutions for the past two years.

We, FALDP, have developed our own technology solution. Our FALDP Document Portal allows consumers to prepare their own documents online for a small fee. As far as we have found, our site works better than any of the court sites, or private sector sites in Florida. For $99 consumers have unlimited use for one month to prepare their own family law documents. The consumer enters their information once into a questionnaire, form fields automatically fill throughout the form set, then the consumer can either save the completed forms to their computer or print them out. All forms are based on Florida Supreme court approved family law forms.
www.FALDP-DocumentPortal.org

Furlong states: "Lawyers, like cab drivers, are useful and capable service providers who nonetheless are sabotaging themselves through their own lousy delivery models."

Lawyers and taxis have been around for centuries. Uber and document preparers were born to offer services more conveniently, with better customer service, and crystal clear price transparency.


The customer is the most important part of any business. And if a business doesn't take care of their customers -- someone else will.


Monday, May 30, 2016

Defamation - Guest Post by Gigi King

People can cause harm to someone’s reputation, this is a tort, and it is called Defamation. There are two types of defamation, one is called Libel and the other is called Slander.
If the statement is written it is called Libel, if the statement is spoken, it is called slander. A person can be injured causing damage to his/her reputation and can sue for damages under the theory of defamation.
When suing someone the burden is on the plaintiff, the person suing, to show proof such as:
  1. The person who made the statement was in fact the real person.
  2. The person actually published the statement
  3. Damage occurred to the Plaintiff’s reputation
  4. The person did not have consent
  5. The statement was a lie
In 1735 in the Zenger case, John Zenger published a weekly newspaper article that was critical of an appointed New York mayor, the governor had Zenger arrested and tried for seditious libel. At that time, Congress had passed the Sedition Act of 1798 which made it a crime to criticize the government. Congress and the Courts eventually dismissed the act and now focus on recovering damages in civil cases.
There is a thin line between Defamation and freedom of speech; people are free talk about whatever they choose to as long as it is truthful. Actually damage has to be shown in order to sue for damages. (Ex: you lost your job; you got kicked out of a club or an association or your community).
Actual malice has to be proven but for public officials, celebrities and movie stars, because they could only win a defamation suit if the statement was published with actual intent to harm the public figure or celebrity; the person knew at the time the statement was made, it was a lie, and did not care. This exposed the person to ridicule, loss of friends, created a negative smear on the plaintiff’s character, you must also have the libel or slander documents or audio file.
Any damage to a person’s reputation can cause mental anguish, emotional distress and cause financial hardship as well. They say sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can actually hurt you. In Florida the statute of limitation for a person to file suit is two years.


There are categories of untrue statements which are presumed to be harmful a person’s reputation they are:
  1. The person was involved in a crime
  2. The person has a contagious disease
  3. The person was involved in a sexual act of some form: child molestation, rape, kidnapping, gay, etc.
  4. The person is engaged in illegal or unfair business practices.
  5. The person abuses drugs and alcohol
General damages can be awarded for past and future harm, mental and emotional anguish, personal humiliation; special damages can be awarded for economic loss of employment, punitive damages can be awarded when the defendant’s actions were willful or maliciously.

If the defendant can prove the statement was in fact true an action for defamation cannot survive.

Sources Cited

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dinosaurs in a Blizzard.

This article is not about dinosaurs or weather. It is about what happens when a creature fails to adapt to a changing environment. Attorneys can rail all they want about the changes in the way people access the legal system, but it will ultimately be their own downfall. Try as they might, attorneys are not going to be able to turn back time. They aren't going to be able to reset the clock to the days when the first and only choice consumers had for anything legal was to immediately go out and retain counsel.

The internet opened up to wide public use in 1995. Since then, the internet has become a way of life for many Americans. A center for their social network, a place to find work, an easy way to shop, and most of all a place to find information. Including legal information. Now that consumers can readily find legal information, they can then make an informed decision regarding many of their own personal and legal matters. Sometimes they'll seek an attorney, sometimes they won't. Sometimes they'll hire a legal document preparer, sometimes they won't.

I found the following on the Florida Bar's site. It is part of a Consumer Pamphlet titled:

 "Hiring The Right Person To Help Me With My Legal Problems Pamphlet "

There will probably come a time in your life when you will need or want to seek legal advice or services. One of the first questions you may ask yourself is whether you need a lawyer, or whether a nonlawyer could assist you instead. This consumer pamphlet is intended to help you make an informed choice.

I recently saw an advertisement in the paper from someone who called himself a paralegal, which said he could help me with my legal problem for a lot less than a lawyer. Can this person really help?

Florida Bar says:

No, a nonlawyer cannot help you with your legal problem. 

Legally, only a licensed member of The Florida Bar can help you with your legal problem and give you legal advice. A lawyer’s job is to make the law work for everyone. Consumers often use the services of lawyers to help them draw up wills, handle real estate transactions, and other important legal needs. If a nonlawyer attempts to help you with your legal problem, that person may be prosecuted for the unlicensed practice of law (UPL) and your case may be affected.

I say:

It depends on what your legal problem is. Granted a nonlawyer document preparer may not give legal advice. But needing legal advice may not be the problem. Maybe a consumer only needs documents properly prepared. Maybe a consumer only needs information about procedure. Remember, there is no specific law school course that focuses on document preparation. Attorneys generally rely on paralegals or software for document preparation, and may not be personally familiar with preparing documents.

But this person is a paralegal. Doesn’t that mean they have training or that they work with a lawyer?

The Florida Bar says:

No. In fact, so many people were being misled about the titles “paralegal” and “legal assistant” that the Supreme Court of Florida passed a rule saying that it is not proper for a nonlawyer to use those titles if they are providing services directly to the public. Paralegals working in a law office often do have training and are often certified. They also have a code of ethics that they must follow, and work under a lawyer’s supervision, not on their own. Nonlawyers who do not work for a lawyer may not have any training and should not be using the title “paralegal”.

I say:

If a document preparer, who offers services directly to consumers, is refers to himself as a "paralegal" or "legal assistant" - I'd stay away. One of the very few clear cut rules regarding the unauthorized practice of law is that document preparers may not call themselves "paralegals" or "legal assistants". A "paralegal", and a "legal assistant", by definition, is supervised by an attorney; and document preparers are not. If a document preparer is unaware of that one very basic rule, it is likely that the document preparer is also unaware of other important information; AND is not a member of the Florida Association of Legal Document Preparers (FALDP). Members of FALDP must meet set standards to join; adhere to a code of ethics; and have an opportunity to become FALDP Certified. Document preparers may or may not have formal training. The use of the title "paralegal", in this context, has more to do with attorney supervision than training. Document preparers often have extensive training; many were formerly paralegals; some are retired attorneys or attorneys from other countries or jurisdictions.

What can this nonlawyer do for me?
The Florida Bar says:

The only thing the nonlawyer can legally do for you is to sell you a pre-printed form and type in the information that you provide to them. A nonlawyer cannot tell you what information you should put on the form, or even what type of form to use, and cannot help you fill it out. Basically, the nonlawyer can act as a secretary or typist.

I say:

The Florida Bar answer is partly correct. However, in addition to selling pre-printed forms and typing information, nonlawyers can assist consumers by locating a specific form for the consumer. It is a common request. Consumers contact document preparers and say they cannot find a specific form and ask for assistance in locating it. Consumers also often struggle understanding the instructions that accompany the Florida Supreme Court approved forms. The form instructions frequently delineate which forms must be filed simultaneously; and a document preparer can point out these instructions to the consumer. Document preparers can also answer procedural questions - such as:
  • what happens next in my case?
  • what happens after the other party answers the complaint?
  • how long does the other party have to answer my petition?
  • how do I efile? can a pro se litigant efile?
How do I know if the form provided by a nonlawyer is right?

The Florida Bar says:

You do not. You cannot rely on the nonlawyer to do it right. You are really representing yourself.

Again, nonlawyers can only supply forms and type in the information you provide.

I say:

Consumers who use document preparers are self-represented. And document preparers may not choose which forms a consumer is to use. Form selection is up to the consumer; and the forms are completed according to information provided by the consumer ... so any error is ultimately the responsibility of the consumer. Consumers who use document preparers are encouraged to educate themselves about their issue, and learn the applicable procedural rules. Through this self education consumers can become empowered in pursuing their own best outcome.

However, consumers can rely on document preparers to complete the required forms correctly. If a document preparer makes errors in completing documents, the consumer's recourse is the same as with any service provider: request corrections/ revisions; demand return of monies paid; or sue.


The ad says that nonlawyers provide the same services as a lawyer. Is that true?

The Florida Bar says:

No, that is not true. A lawyer can give you legal advice and go to court with you. A nonlawyer cannot give legal advice and cannot go to court. There are other important differences between a lawyer and a nonlawyer:

I say:
No, that is not true. Any document preparer who claims to offer the same services as a lawyer is an unauthorized practice of law investigation waiting to happen. And an FALDP member who claimed to provide the same services as a lawyer would be immediately reprimanded, and potentially face termination of membership.

The Florida Bar says:
Lawyers are required to have a college degree and a law degree. There are no legal education requirements for nonlawyers.

I say:
Prospective FALDP members must submit a written application -- not all applicants are invited to join. Prospective members must agree to a background check; meet set standards posted on the FALDP website; and agree to abide by the FALDP Pledge.
The Florida Bar says:
Lawyers are required to pass a stringent admittance examination to determine their competency, as well as a thorough character and fitness investigation, before being admitted to practice law. There are no such requirements for nonlawyers.

I say:
Certain specific red flags generally prevent an applicant from joining FALDP. Some of these specific red flags are: an applicant who is a disbarred attorney; applicants who have committed financial crimes; and applicants who have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
The Florida Bar says:
Lawyers are required to maintain current legal education and take ethics courses periodically. There is no continuing education requirement for nonlawyers.

I say:
FALDP Certification requires at least 10 Continuing Education Units per year. FALDP Certification is voluntary within the association, and not all members choose to pursue certification. FALDP regularly hosts webinars which are open to all members at no charge. Topics include information business ethics, best practices, and UPL, among others.
The Florida Bar says:
Lawyers are subject to comprehensive and tough ethical rules. There are no written ethical standards for nonlawyers.

I say:
All FALDP members are required to adhere to the FALDP Pledge. Failure to abide by those rules can be reason for termination of membership.
The Florida Bar says:
Lawyers who are accused of misbehavior are investigated by The Florida Bar, which can lead to losing their license to practice law. Nonlawyers are not professionally accountable to any authority, although they can be investigated and prosecuted for engaging in the unlicensed practice of law.

I say:
FALDP members who are accused of misbehavior are investigated by FALDP which can lead to termination of their membership. Consumers who report to FALDP that they have been poorly treated, or have paid for services and received no documents - even when the document preparer is not a member of FALDP - are assisted. Sometimes FALDP will complete a consumer's documents at no cost or low cost when a non-member document preparer has failed to live up to his obligations.
The Florida Bar says:
Lawyers are required to maintain client confidences. Nonlawyers have no such requirement, and could tell your secrets to anyone, even the other side.
I say:
FALDP member document preparers are required to maintain their customer's privacy according the FALDP Pledge:

  • To respect my customers’ privacy.
  • To keep in strict confidence my customers’ affairs, and not share information about a customer without that customer’s permission unless court ordered.

The Florida Bar says:
Lawyers as a profession maintain a Clients’ Security Fund, which is intended to reimburse clients for some of their losses if a lawyer misappropriates trust funds. There is no such program for nonlawyers. A nonlawyer cannot be forced to give you your money back if a nonlawyer steals it from you or does not provide the services that were promised.

I say:
Document preparers do not typically handle trust funds. If a nonlawyer steals from a consumer or does not provide documents as requested, consumers can sue the document preparer or report the document preparer to law enforcement. Just as with any service provider, there are resources in place to protect consumers.


I still think I’m going to give the nonlawyer a try. My case is simple and I think I can handle it myself.

The Florida Bar says:

Every person has the right to represent himself/herself. But remember, cases that appear simple at first may turn out to be more complicated than you first thought. Finding a lawyer isn’t as hard as you think and you might be able to have your questions answered or get good legal advice during an initial consultation. If you do not have a lawyer, many local bar groups in Florida sponsor lawyer referral services, listed under “attorney” or “attorney referral services” in the yellow pages of the telephone book. These services can set up an initial appointment for you with a lawyer for a nominal fee (usually less than $50). If there is no lawyer referral service in your city, The Florida Bar’s statewide service can locate a lawyer for you. You can call this service toll-free at (800) 342-8011. The statewide service, which operates only in cities where there is no local program, will refer you to an attorney for an initial half-hour consultation for a nominal fee. The Florida Bar’s consumer pamphlet “How To Find A Lawyer In Florida” may also help.

I say:


Document preparers routinely urge consumers to seek legal advice or representation when and if the case becomes more complicated than the consumer first thought. Many consumers consult with an attorney before using a document preparer; and have already received legal advice before hiring a document preparer. Some consumers find attorney prices unaffordable after the initial consultation; and seek assistance for a legal document preparer instead of an attorney. It is also common for a consumer to seek the services of a document preparer after an attorney withdrew from his case. FALDP maintains a Member Directory with information about FALDP Members throughout the state. Consumers can call 800-515-0496 to be matched with a legal document preparer who may be able to assist them. 


In the long run, it is attorney's best interest to adapt with the times, and recognize that legal document preparers provide a vital consumer service, and have a niche in the marketplace. Attorneys railing against document preparers and trying to put document preparers out of business through intimidation and half-truths is a losing proposition. Just ask the dinosaur.