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Why Do Legal Documents Have to be So Hard to Understand?

By December 16, 2015July 21st, 2023Alan Freed Featured, From the Lawyer's Desk

By Alan Freed

Did you ever take a look at a contract, one that starts out with a bunch of “Whereases,” throws in a “Witnesseth,” adds a healthy sprinkling of “hereinabove,” “hereinafter,” “heretofore,” “hereto,” “hereby,” and “herein,” adds a dose of “pursuant to,” “including, but not limited to,” and “the said minor child,” and then wonder why the lawyers who wrote this beast of an agreement couldn’t make it more understandable?

The truth is that agreements don’t have to be written in undecipherable legalese. English will do just fine, thank you.

Lawyers, like most people, are creatures of habit, and they often will rely upon older documents to use as the models for new ones. Consequently, old fashioned language can frequently be preserved long past its “use by” date.

Here’s the important message if you are being represented by a lawyer and you aren’t able to understand a document that the lawyer has presented to you:

You have the right to understand every word, sentence, and paragraph of every document that your lawyer wants you to sign!

Don’t be shy about demanding that the lawyer clarify every clause in the document, even if that means that the document needs to be rewritten. Don’t be satisfied by an answer such as, “We put that in every document,” or “That’s just standard boilerplate.” If something is written into a document, it is there for a reason. If you don’t understand the language, your lawyer has to make every effort to explain it to your satisfaction or use different words in the document so that you can understand it. And if your lawyer’s only answer is “we put that in every document,” chances are your lawyer doesn’t understand it and it should be removed.

Instead of “the said minor child,” your agreement can refer to “the child” or even “Billy.” Rather than referring to “Petitioner” and “Respondent,” your agreement can refer to “Wilma” and “Fred.” Words such as “herein” and “whereas” have perfectly acceptable modern English equivalents, such as “in this document,” and “because.”

Remember, once your case is over, you are relying upon the language in the document that you signed to protect your legal rights. When you need to read and understand the document, no one may be around to translate it for you. If you don’t understand those terms, you may not understand your own rights. Even worse, a judge who is asked to enforce those rights may not understand the language either. It’s better to straighten out any confusion before you sign, rather than waiting until there is a problem down the road.

To learn more about plain language legal documents, please speak with one of the attorneys at Paule, Camazine & Blumenthal, P.C.


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