How to Find Free Legal Forms Online - And Use Them Safely

People who search the Internet for free legal forms often find the experience to be a bit frustrating.

While there are some legal forms available, often the search engine results for a search for a "free legal form" lead to a site which sells forms. Even when a free or sample form is provided, it may not fit the needs of the person seeking the form, or may be written for the laws of a different state.

Many Free Forms Are Available Online

While most jurisdictions (and a lot of websites) offer free simple will forms, or power of attorney forms, it is usually harder to find form contracts, leases, or other such documents. Searches may not produce any meaningful results, or produce a list of form vendors. And usually if you want to buy a form, you are better off (and save money) by buying the forms at a local office supply store rather than online - at least that way you can see what you're getting before you pay, and you know the publisher has made a product which is suited to your state.

The best way to find free forms is not by entering a search for "free legal form", or something similar - it is by taking a sample of the text which usually appears on a form, and entering that as your search query. You are much more likely to end up with a form that has actually been used - that is, one in which the parties' names appear in the form - and will have to edit out that information before you can use the form. But you are also quite likely to find a form that is free.

By way of example, if you are looking for a free real estate form, such as a rental agreement or a lease for an apartment, and you type the search:

free lease form

You may get some generic forms, but you will often find that the forms offered are meant as an enticement to convince you to buy a set of forms or downloadable form, and the form you find may not be specific to your state. You will also find probably find agreements to lease objects, such as office furniture, instead of real estate.

The key to finding good forms, specific to your community, is to use language which almost always appears on the form, and search for that language along with the name of your state or province. For example, residential leases almost always prohibit a tenant from subleasing property without permission from the landlord.

Thus, if you instead search for:

Michigan tenant may not sublet without written consent

Your search results will include forms used by actual Michigan landlords, and possibly a few other genuinely free form leases. Similarly, in searching for other forms of contract, adding language from standard contract clauses will help produce real contract forms, not glorified ads for forms vendor sites.

The Battle of the Forms

Please be aware when using any free or standardized form product, whether you purchase it online, in a store, or download it from the Internet, that the form is probably written from a specific perspective.

It may be unusual to think of a legal form as having a perspective, but the fact is that most forms are written by one or the other party to a contract, and they write the form such that the terms of the agreement work in their favor.

Lawyers refer to this jockeying by each side to get their own form used as the "battle of the forms" - and the side which wins that battle will often have greater protection under the contract and more remedies available in the event of a breach.

If you find a free bill of sale form, for example, read the terms carefully. Bills of sale almost always reflect a "pro-buyer" stance or a "pro-seller" stance. A pro-buyer form typically includes guaranties or warranties about the product being sold, with minimal consequences for a late payment, and may include penalties for late shipment or delivery. A pro-seller form typically disclaims warranties, express or implied, about the product - perhaps even selling the product "as is", typically includes penalties for late payment - often late fees and interest - and may excuse late shipment or delivery.

Using the other side's standard form can leave you with little or no remedy in the event that the other side doesn't perform its contractual duties. If you accidentally use a form which was intended for use by "the other side", you may strip yourself of legal rights and remedies.

If you have any doubt that you may have selected an inappropriate form, get help from somebody who truly understands the terminology used in legal forms and contracts before you use the forms.

Why State and Local Law Matters

Different states have different rules about warranties, when warranties may be waived, what interest or late fees may be charged for late payment or on the balance of an installment contract, the rights of landlords and protections offered to tenants, and other matters which may be highly relevant to a contract or legal agreement.

A form that is so generic as to avoid any application of state or local law may not be sufficient to protect your rights - no matter which side you are on - as it does not reflect any special remedies or protections available to you under the law.

Act With Care

If you have any doubt about a legal form you find for free, or even one you buy from an office supply store or website, the best thing you can do is have the form reviewed and approved by a legal professional.

You may find a lawyer's review of a form, particularly one you wish to use in multiple transactions, to be both helpful and affordable, and if there is a defect or omission in the form that advance review can save you a lot of anguish and money in the event of future trouble with the other party to the agreement.

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.