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What is a Legal Form?

A legal form is a template that contains sample language and essential details for drafting formal, official legal documents. Forms help lawyers and non-lawyers save time by eliminating the need to compose standardized language from scratch when creating new legal instruments like contracts, leases, wills, or powers of attorney. They also provide a convenient reference point for drafters when refining or correcting existing documents. Forms can be grouped into two broad categories: legal forms and pleading and practice forms. This research guide focuses on legal forms that address substantive matters such as contracts, wills, and leases; for more information on pleading and practice forms see the Briefs, Oral Arguments, and Other Court Documents Research Guide.

Choosing the right legal form for your business is important because it determines how your company will be taxed, its liabilities, and its flexibility to raise capital through stock sales or acquisitions. Consider the following factors when deciding which form to select:

In addition, your legal form must meet all state and local requirements to ensure it is valid. Some jurisdictions require specific forms for different types of businesses, or forms that incorporate certain terms to protect the rights and privileges of shareholders/investors. Also, if you plan to expand your company in the future, you may want to select a legal form that supports your goals. For example, if you hope to go public, you will need to form a corporation to facilitate your company’s growth and to enable the sale of shares on NASDAQ or the New York Stock Exchange. Other considerations include the amount of money you expect to raise, your company’s intended lifespan, and the level of risk and liability involved in operating the business. For this reason, consulting with a lawyer or tax specialist is often helpful when selecting a legal form.

How to Fill Out a Legal Form

Legal forms are printed documents with spaces where you can fill in information. They are designed to address common situations that courts and judges see over and over again. But every case is unique, and legal forms may not fully cover all the issues in yours. Use them only as a starting point and in conjunction with other written documents you prepare, information you gather, and research you do about the law that governs your case.

Read the form and any instructions carefully before you begin to complete it. Take your time, and write clearly and completely. If you have questions, ask a self-help center staff member or a court clerk for assistance. Complete one section of the form at a time. If you can’t answer a question, write “not applicable” or “unknown.” Sign the forms in all places that require your signature. Use blue or black ink, and make sure it is clear and legible.

Most courts have websites that include court-created forms for particular types of cases. These websites might have free forms or charge for them, depending on the jurisdiction. You can also find forms on websites that specialize in legal document preparation, such as Lexis or Westlaw. If you’re using online resources, be sure to check the law governing your case before you download or use any forms.

Some forms ask you to sign under penalty of perjury, meaning that if you sign the document, you are declaring that everything you have written on it is true and correct. Take this seriously! There are both civil and criminal penalties for perjury.

Most county law libraries have sets of forms for general court use and for a variety of specific topics. Some are available for purchase and can be found by searching the library catalog for the subject heading “forms.” You might also find some useful form books, like Warren’s Forms of Agreement or Nichol’s Cyclopedia of Legal Forms (available via Lexis with a State Library card). Many private attorneys have their own collections of form documents that they have created or modified for their clients.

Legal Forms for Individuals

Individuals often need legal forms to complete important duties or transactions. These include contracts, real estate documents, loan agreements, and more. Some form sets address substantive matters, while others (generally called pleading and practice forms) supply language for filing with the court in litigation matters.

For example, a new homeowner may need a home loan agreement and mortgage closing checklist or a warranty deed. Or, a debtor may need a personal bankruptcy petition and discharge declaration. Other forms help individuals plan their estates, prepare guardianship agreements, delegate power of attorney responsibilities, or make pet care arrangements.

LexisNexis offers legal forms for all 50 states and several practice areas, as well as a variety of templates and checklists to support the preparation of formal legal documents. Other top picks include Nolo, which has a simple online document creation process and connects users with attorneys; and LegalZoom, which provides a one-stop portal for LLC formation and registered agent services plus a wide range of state-specific legal forms for both business and personal use. These companies also offer unlimited access and revisions to their forms.