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San Antonio Express-News, 2/5/99

Is Will Preparation Software Illegal in Texas?

© 1989-2004, Paul Premack

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Dear Mr. Premack: I read recently that computer programs to prepare Wills are illegal in Texas. What is the story here? If I want to write my own Will, shouldn’t I be able to do it without paying a lawyer? And if the programs are illegal, why do I see them stocked on the store shelves? Thanks. – B.W. via email

Are computer programs that prepare Wills and other legal documents illegal in Texas? According to a January 22, 1999 decision in the US District Court, Northern District of Texas, the answer is "yes." However, the legal process is not yet final – it appears that the case will be appealed. As such, the software is still available on the store shelves.

What is the fuss about legal software? Your question about writing your own Will without a lawyer clarifies the issue. The sale of legal software is not about writing your own legal documents – it is about getting legal information, advice and documents prepared by a legal expert. Buying software to do your Will is not the same as writing your own Will.

Ok, but why shouldn’t you be able to buy software to help? Two reasons. First, the software is written in a "one-size-fits-all" format that often gives incomplete results that can be costly. Second, the legal advice is given by persons who are not licensed to practice law in Texas. Can you do your own legal work personally without paying a lawyer? Yes. Can someone else do it for you, when that someone is not a licensed attorney? No.

The recent case is "Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee v. Parsons Technology Inc." Parsons is based in Iowa (and was once a subsidiary of Intuit, makers of Quicken accounting software, but now just licenses the name). They market their legal software as "Quicken Family Lawyer." According to Parsons, the software is designed to handle a variety of legal issues from writing Wills and Trusts to handling a small claim in court.

Parsons argued that its software does not create a lawyer-client relationship -- that no one-on-one legal advice is given. The Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee (which was created by the Texas legislature and is overseen by the Texas Supreme Court) took the position that dispensing legal information and forms is the practice of law. If you want to do that, you must have a Texas law license.

Judge Barefoot Sanders of the US District Court decided that since the software "adapts the content of the form to the responses given by the user," it is giving legal advice. He ruled that Parsons is illegally practicing law in Texas without a license. Parsons is expected to appeal.

Texas is the first state to take such a strong position against self-help software. Other states are considering similar suits against Parsons and other publishers like Nolo Press.

Remember, you always have the legal right to represent yourself or to write your own legal documents. But representing yourself is often a costly mistake, and expert guidance from a trained attorney cannot be adequately replaced with software.

[Note from Premack: The Texas Legislature passed a new law to reverse the federal Judge's ruling. For more, read the June 14, 2005 Column.]

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Disclaimer: This column answers a specific legal question offered by an individual in the South Texas area. The answer may or may not match your individual situation. Be careful not to treat this column as specific legal advice that meets your individual needs. It may give you a solid basis for discussion with your own attorney. Also, please be aware that laws change. You should consult with your personal attorney before you take any action on this or any legal issue.

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