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Read the Fine Print!

Recently, I had occasion to plow my way through a detailed agreement which a client wanted to understand and sought a plain English explanation of the central provisions. It is interesting how tortured and complicated an otherwise simple concept may be rendered by a professional in the field. Though the desired outcome may be simple – as in, when I die, Joe gets my car – the surrounding language is usually dense and often confusing.

This does not mean that many of the details of the document are unimportant. A well-written agreement will make provision for those highly unlikely but certainly possible events or circumstances that would derail the intentions of the parties if not considered and addressed. For example, in our Joe and the car situation, what happens if Joe dies before me and so will not be able to receive the car? Or if Joe happens to be a minor when I die? Or if there is an outstanding lien on the car at the time of my death, or even worse no car at all? You get the picture, what might be a simple concept implicates a lot of not so simple issues once you step back and think about it.

Knowing that such problems may occur helps us to understand that though tedious it is worthwhile slogging our way through the document to make sure that those possibilities have been addressed and that our intentions will be met down the road. Here is a clear example where it is important to know what is in a document before you sign it. There could be a variety of unpleasant results if things do not proceed down the straight and narrow path we envisioned at the beginning.

So, bottom line, we do need to read that fine print – or have someone else we trust to read and translate it for us – so that we know what we wanted when we sign the agreement is actually likely to happen even if things (as they often do) change somewhere and sometime down the road. Lack of knowledge is not a good excuse, particularly when one has the means to rectify any potential lack thereof.

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