Can't I just go on LegalZoom and do my will?
That’s a question we sometimes hear. The answer is – yes, but… .
LegalZoom and other do-it-yourself (“DIY”) websites advertise as a cheaper alternative to using an attorney. Lured by the lower cost, many decide not to use professional advice and believe the documents LegalZoom creates will be just as effective.
In order to learn more about LegalZoom, I went to its website and read its disclaimer. Here is what LegalZoom says about itself:
“LegalZoom is not a law firm, and the employees of LegalZoom are not acting as your attorney. LegalZoom’s legal document service is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney….LegalZoom is prohibited from providing any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation to a consumer about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.”
“At no time do we review your answers for legal sufficiency, draw legal conclusions, provide legal advice or apply the law to the facts of your particular situation. LegalZoom and its services are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney….The legal information on this site is not legal advice and is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date. Because the law changes rapidly, is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and is also subject to varying interpretations by different courts and certain government and administrative bodies, LegalZoom cannot guarantee that all the information on the site is completely current. The law is a personal matter, and no general information or legal tool like the kind LegalZoom provides can fit every circumstance.”
“Therefore, if you need legal advice for your specific problem, or if your specific problem is too complex to be addressed by our tools, you should consult a licensed attorney in your area.”
Of course, each person’s situation is unique. Just because a majority of their customers have answered a question a certain way, does not make it right for your circumstances. So, if a serious legal error is made, either by the DIY site – or just because you were unaware of how the law works, you will likely never know it because it will not become apparent until after you become incapacitated or die. The cost to then deal with the unintended result or correct the error will likely be many times over your initial savings. Those left to deal with the problem are probably the same people you created the documents to protect and provide for.
In the September 2012 issue of Consumer Reports Magazine three DIY web based services were evaluated and reviewed by three professors who teach at nationally known law schools. They concluded that using any of the three services is generally better than drafting the documents yourself without legal training, or not having them at all. But unless your needs are simple – for example you intend to leave your entire estate to your spouse, outright, free of trust - none of the will-writing products were found likely to entirely meet your needs. And in some cases, the documents were not considered specific enough or they contained language that could lead to an unintended result.
Attorneys do more than just draft the document. We use our knowledge and experience to provide counsel and advice on how best to protect your family and preserve and distribute your assets according to your wishes. While a client may just want a “simple” will, he or she may not understand the significant advantages of using a trust. Neither may the client understand that the way an asset is owned may result in a completely unintended result. The client doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know. A knowledgeable and experienced attorney will help the client identify the legal issues and ways to resolve those issues, so that the client can actually achieve what is intended for the family.
The goal expressed by most of my clients is to “get something in place” so that things will be easy for the family. While they want to keep things simple, most people learn at our first meeting that they need more than a simple will to accomplish what is important to them and their family. I usually hear something like, “Wow, we had no idea!” In other words, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. When they leave the meeting, they realize they are paying for the lawyer’s counsel and advise, not just the paperwork that will follow.
Here’s the difference. LegalZoom’s job is to deliver a product the customer requests, and an Estate Planning Attorney’s job is to assess a client’s family circumstances, make recommendations based on those circumstances, and create a plan to achieve what a fully informed client decides upon. If a person calls us to set up a will, we schedule an appointment and send them a “homework packet” to gather information on the client’s family, assets and financial circumstances.
At our meeting, we go through their information and show them what would happen if they died with their current plan (or lack of plan). We identify areas of concern, such as the cost, time delay, and privacy issues associated with probate. We discuss ways to avoid areas of concern. Then the client chooses a plan that best fits the family’s needs. We also address issues such as incapacity – what will happen if the client is living, but incompetent – as well as asset protection issues.
Finally, while attorneys must take financial responsibility for failing to meet the standard of care and causing damage to a client, LegalZoom denies any liability if you suffer as a result of its errors. Its disclaimer bluntly states that you are on your own. “LegalZoom is not responsible for any loss, injury, claim, liability, or damage related to your use of this site….In short, your use of the site is at your own risk.”
So, my conclusions are:
1. You can obtain legal documents through DIY websites for significantly less money.
2. DIY documents are probably better than nothing
3. DIY documents carry significant risk for unintended results.
The opinions expressed in this blog post are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Red Oak Legal, PC.