There is an expression in Spanish which roughly translates to “The baker in the bread shop and the shoemaker to make shoes”. In other words, each to his own profession. Don’t try to do what is best left to those of a different occupation. I learned this lesson the hard way the one and only time that I tried to give my son a haircut. It looked like he got bit by a donkey, poor kid.
This week I saw a classic example of a non-attorney drafting a legal document for another, with terrible results. Granted, the individual who did this did, I am certain, had his heart in the right place. Likewise, the man on the receiving end of the document was not trying to save the expense of a lawyer but rather, was very ill and didn’t have much choice in what was happening.
This is what happened. An elderly gentleman lay dying in hospice. Years before, he signed a Power of Attorney- the document that would allow his son to sell his house. For reasons that aren’t important to the story, it was lost and his dad, who we will call Frank, needed to sign a new one so that his son could sell his house in order to continue to pay for his medical care. A new "power of attorney" was signed. The house went on the market and the man’s son, who we will call Jonathan, signed the real estate contract believing that he had a valid power of attorney to sell Frank’s house. I was hired to handle the sale and I asked to see the power of attorney, to be sure that everything was in order.
Uh-oh. The power of attorney needed to comply with the Illinois Power of Attorney Act, an actual law on the books which governs the language that is needed for a Power of Attorney to be legally valid. It is several pages long. The Power of Attorney signed by Frank was only a few sentences long. Completely and totally invalid. Worthless. As it turns out, the document was prepared by a minister. Not a lawyer. A minister. The minister was, I am sure, only trying to be helpful. But instead, Jonathan mistakenly thought that he had legal authority to sell his dad’s house when in fact he didn’t. And by the time he found out that the power of attorney was no good, Frank was so ill that he lacked the mental capacity to sign a new one. Fortunately, it does look like we may still be able to save the deal but the end result could have just as easily gone terribly, terribly wrong.
The teaching point here is that a legal document is a legal document. Legal documents should be prepared (or at least very carefully reviewed) by attorneys. Not by ministers (despite their best intentions), not by doctors, accountants, bakers or candlestick makers. The “legal forms” which can be found on the internet are usually just as bad. The baker in the breadshop and the shoemaker to make shoes.