Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why not a legal form for that?

I’ve been working with Florida’s Head of Family statutory exemption and the question in the back of my mind has been, why not create a general purpose form so that non-lawyers can easily claim the exemption for themselves by just filling in the blanks? The idea has a superficial attraction, if things were only that simple.

Lawyers, businesses and governments use forms every day for standardized transactions. But they each employ trained professionals who know which form to use, and what the form’s limitations are. In the arena of Florida debtors claiming exemptions there may be a few commonly recurring situations, but there is no single standardized transaction. At best, there might be several different forms for the various configurations of circumstances, but no single all-purpose form is likely.

Still, the person seeking to use the form would need a certain minimum understanding of the big picture to know which specific form to select. Forms are useful tools in the right hands, but they cannot substitute for understanding.

In the context of Florida’s Head of Family exemption, a standardized form for claiming the exemption could be extremely misleading.

Fill out the form; file the completed form to claim the exemption and, voilà, get the exemption! Yes?

It’s probably not quite that simple. Claiming the exemption is just the first step in what could easily evolve into a long court battle. The other side might not sit still while you nothing more than file a piece of paper to keep your paycheck or bank account for yourself. The other side has the right to question your claim of exemption and to deny the truth of what you have claimed. Your creditor might likely put your claim to the test. Then, the ball is back in your court and you must come up with legally acceptable evidence and a persuasive legal argument to convince a judge of your claim.

Mindlessly filling out a form will not prepare you for that. A legal form is no substitute for understanding.