LegalZoom vs. Lawyer: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

by Rania Combs on May 24, 2010

LegalZoom and other do-it-yourself document preparation services want you to believe that the process of preparing a will is as easy as filling in the blanks on standardized forms.

  1. They try to lure you with a cheap product and a process that takes less than half an hour to complete.
  2. They try to assure you with testimonials of customers professing that their product has given them “peace of mind.”
  3. They provide you with a portal that gives you a “general understanding of the law” even though the information it contains is “not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date.”
  4. They suggest that the document you get from their company will be just as effective as one an attorney creates by garnering endorsements from famous lawyers like Robert Shapiro.

In short, despite a disclaimer that their document preparation services are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney, they try to convince you that the advice of an attorney is simply not necessary.

Do-it-yourself wills provide a false sense of security

As part of an experiment, Minnesota attorney, Gregory Luce, who is currently the Practice Development Director at the Minesota State Bar Association, agreed to buy a will though LegalZoom. He has recorded his progress doing so in a series on his Practice Blawg and plans to compare the service and will he obtains from LegalZoom with the process of getting a will prepared by an attorney.

Greg is married, and has two children: one from a previous marriage and the other from his current marriage. Even though he does not practice estate planning, he is a licensed attorney. His experience provides a glimpse at how even an educated consumer may be lulled into “peace of mind” by a document with significant flaws.

Is the advice of an attorney necessary in the preparation of a will?

Greg posted a video on his blog that documents his experience of obtaining a will through LegalZoom. Although it’s somewhat lengthy, I’d encourage you to watch it because it demonstrates how easy it is for even an attorney to make significant mistakes.

One thing that stunned me as I watched the video was the following highlighted statement:

On the top left-hand corner of the page, LegalZoom reveals that 80 percent of people who fill in blank forms to create legal documents do so incorrectly. Despite this dislaimer, LegalZoom tries to reassure its customers that professionals are there to help; that customers can have “peace of mind” knowing that LegalZoom professionals will customize their will based on their legal decisions.

But LegalZoom is not a law firm. It is not permitted to review your answers for legal sufficiency, draw legal conclusions, provide legal advice or apply the law to the facts of your particular situation.

Consequently, LegalZoom resorts to providing only general information on legal issues commonly encountered, and offers guidance in some instances by indicating that a majority of its customers have answered a question a certain way.

The problem is that everyone’s situation is unique. Just because the majority of customers have answered a question a certain way, for example, doesn’t necessarily make it right for your individual circumstances.

So if serious legal mistakes are made, you’ll never know because they will not become apparent until you die. And the people left to deal with the mistakes are the people you’re probably creating your will to protect.

If it seems to good to be true, it probably is

According to Greg, his LegalZoom will arrived in a very professional packet that contained a booklet titled “Guide to Your Last Will and Testament,” a “Property Worksheet” for listing all assets in one place, and instructional sheets  titled “Notarizing Your Documents,” Executor’s Guide,” and “Guardian’s Guide.”

Besides the fact that one of his sons was excluded from the testamentary trust he created for his children, a potentially costly mistake, Greg writes that he was surprisingly impressed by the will he received, noting that the will did what he thought it should.

But since he is not an estate planning attorney, Greg posted a copy of the will so that others could look at it and point out any issues that may be problematic. Not surprisingly, there were plenty of problems, which you can read in the comment section of his post titled Reviewing My $69.00 Will.

Below is a summary of just a few of the ones mentioned by some attorneys who commented:

  1. It failed to include an alternate trustee in the event the named trustee predeceases him or is unable or unwilling to serve.
  2. It failed to include a self-proving affidavit, which means that witnesses would have to be tracked down in the event of his death to testify to the validity of the will.
  3. It failed to provide guidance about beneficiary designations on non-probate assets which pass outside the will.
  4. It failed to include a provision that would allow him to direct the disposition of personal property in a separate document.
  5. It failed to address the contingency of the death of his children, or the birth or adoption of a third child.
  6. It failed to include spendthrift provision in any of the trusts, which protect the trust assets from the trust beneficiary’s creditors.

One problem I noticed which was not mentioned in the comments was that the will potentially disinherited Greg’s oldest child by bequeathing 100 percent of his gross estate to his current wife.

Greg has a blended family, and his current wife is not his oldest son’s mother. As the sole beneficiary of his estate, she would have complete control over Greg’s assets. She would have the power to decide how the assets will be used and who will benefit from them. She could choose not to share any of Greg’s estate with her stepson.

Do-it-yourself wills are not worth the risk

Attorneys do more than draft a document. They advise you on the best way to protect your family and preserve and distribute your assets according to your wishes.

Yes, the advice of an attorney costs more. But eighty percent of people who fill in blank forms to create legal documents do so incorrectly. Are you going to beat the odds? Are you willing to take the risk?

Return to Texas Wills and Trust Online home page →

Previous post:

Next post:

Read about Rania's law firm in...