For anyone who is not familiar with LegalZoom and other do-it-yourself (DIY) legal sites like it, they are places where people can, for a modest fee, perform certain legal services for themselves using forms supplied by the website. For example, you can create a will and certain other estate planning documents or form a business entity such as a corporation or an LLC.
For an estate planning attorney like me, DIY legal sites, upon first glance, seem to provide competition if not an outright threat to my livelihood. And, frankly, until recently I didn’t really know the details of how such sites work, so whenever I was asked the question of why not use a DIY legal site to create a will, I hesitated to answer because anything I said would come across as self-serving and calculated to steer someone away from such sites and toward my office instead. Generally, I said something along the lines of “Creating an estate plan using a service like LegalZoom might do the trick for certain individuals who fall within very narrow criteria such as a heterosexual married couple without minor children and for whom estate taxes will not be an issue--but for everyone else who doesn’t fit into that narrow category, they might end up with documents that don’t offer the protections or do the job that they thought they would.”
But now that I’ve learned more about DIY legal sites, and at the continued risk of sounding self-serving, I can no longer in good conscience even suggest that the documents provided by such sites might do the trick even for those who fall within the very narrow criteria mentioned above. The reason for the change of opinion is because I have learned more about how such sites work, and now know that although they may provide legal documents that may produce the expected results for a limited subset of people if properly filled out and executed according to all required legal formalities, they offer no assurance that the forms have indeed been filled out correctly or executed according to the law. Yes, they provide instructions, but they do not check your work. In fact, even if they find a mistake that could have grave legal consequences, such as rendering your will invalid, they do not—they cannot—tell you about the error. The reason they cannot point out a legal error is because that would be the unauthorized practice of law, which is against the law. The people who review the documents created by site users are not attorneys and therefore they cannot offer any legal advice, even when it means remaining silent about a serious error.
Until recently I was not aware that DIY legal services are as limited as they are (unless you pay them more to consult with an attorney—in which case, why not use an attorney recommended by someone you know and trust, or that you find through a local bar association’s free attorney referral service?). I had the impression—as many do—that you received some limited form of legal advice or that the sites at least verified that the documents were created and executed correctly. I was wrong.
There are numerous sad examples of people who incorrectly filled out or executed their wills using DIY legal services and whose documents were later invalidated and/or subject to litigation. And, recently, Consumer Reports magazine compared three DIY legal websites and concluded that such sites could create significant problems for users, especially in the area of estate planning (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2012/09/legal-diy-websites-are-no-match-for-a-pro/index.htm). On the other hand, when you use an attorney to create a will and other estate planning documents, the chance that those documents will not be legally valid or stand up to legal challenge is dramatically reduced. And in the rare instance that an attorney-created document does not hold up in court, the attorney can be held accountable. No such remedy with DIY legal sites.
Thinking of DIY legal sites the way we think of online medical sites such as WebMD is an apt comparison in my opinion. Online legal sites, like online medical sites, essentially allow you to self-diagnose your legal issues and determine on your own what steps to take. But like online medical sites, you can also misdiagnose your legal issue or take incorrect steps to address a correctly diagnosed issue. And the consequences can be just as dire as the consequences of relying on a site like WebMD without following up with your doctor.
A colleague of mine recently shared with me what he often tells his clients if they are hesitant about spending money on the services he provides. The gist of the message really resonates with me, although personally I’m not convinced it doesn’t unintentionally come off sounding a bit condescending, which is why I haven’t adopted the line myself. Nonetheless, I’m going to share it here because I can’t think of a less condescending way to state what, at base, is a truth that can be applied to countless professions, not just lawyers: “You don’t pay me for what I do, you pay me for what I know.” See how it doesn’t quite hit the ears all that pleasantly? But it states an essential truth: Lawyers are not in the business of charging for the actual documents or other services they provide, but rather for the in-depth knowledge about specific, complex, ever-changing, and often critically important legal issues that they learned about not only in law school, but also on the job and through required annual continuing legal education. It may not be as obvious that a lawyer is bringing vital knowledge to the table and using that knowledge to perform important tasks for clients the way it is readily apparent that a doctor is doing so, or even a plumber for that matter. You might look at your will and (quite understandably) think: “I paid how much for this? I could have done this myself.” You might be less likely to think the same thoughts when looking at surgical stitches or a newly installed toilet. But a good estate planning attorney who cares about his or her clients’ welfare has spent countless hours both in school and out gaining the knowledge necessary to properly represent you, and ensuring that your will and other estate planning documents are in compliance with current law and are tailored to your specific needs.
In short, a lawyer is not going to prepare your will and other estate planning documents for between $150 and $200 like DIY legal sites will. But a decent estate planning attorney is going to take the time to get to know you, your particular personal, familial, and financial circumstances, as well as your estate planning needs and goals, and afterward is going to produce quality, comprehensive documents specifically tailored to you. He or she will also ensure that the documents are all properly executed so that they will be honored when the time comes that they’re needed, and will keep you informed when the laws change in such a way that your current documents might need some adjusting. The peace of mind that comes with that will cost more than a DIY legal site. However (again at the risk of sounding self-serving)--but basing my comments on what client after client has told me—it’s well worth the extra cost.
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