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 →

Candice May 24, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Regarding the disinheritance of the oldest son, I think it should be pointed out that this isn’t always done by an “evil” stepparent. It’s most often done inadvertently. Sometimes the stepparent fails to plan after the death of the first spouse, and so when the stepparent dies, the estate goes all to his or her heirs. Sometimes the stepparent remarries, and leaves everything to his or her spouse. Sometimes the stepparent thinks that leaving all to the children will include the stepchild.

Just wanted to point out that even if your spouse is loving an trustworthy, it’s still up to you to secure your child’s inheritance.

Judy Young June 1, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Great post Rania. I think too many persons oftentimes miss critical issues when using DIY sites like Legalzoom. Its great you’re letting them know what they don’t get, but may need down the line.

Chandra Lewnau June 9, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Very helpful post. I’ll also point out that a lawyer on the texas probate mail list mentioned that the 3 LegalZoom wills he has seen just appoint a personal representative and don’t specify an independent executor. Another had seen wills with no self-proving affidavit, requiring witnesses to testify, or with no designation that the administration be independent. Even these potentially correctable mistakes will end up costing the consumer much more than they would have paid a lawyer to do it right in the first place. The problem is that consumers don’t know what they don’t know and can’t evaluate whether these form documents work for them. As lawyers, we do need to take some responsibility for the popularity of solutions like LegalZoom and focus on providing more easily accessible, reasonably priced services with more of the speed and convenience of these online solutions.

Rania Combs June 9, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Thanks for sharing these examples, Chandra. The people who made the wills you mentioned probably thought they had their estates in order. Unfortunately, the money they saved trying to write their own will has probably been spent many times over trying to correct the mistakes about which they were not even aware.

Bob January 8, 2012 at 10:29 am

In one incident a friend of mine wrote his will on a paper towel, had it notarized by co workers at the bank he worked at and left his entire estate with his shack up honey who was 35 years younger. Of course the ex wife and three children contested it but the courts ruled that the will was valid. This event which took place in Erie County Ohio seems to contradict this entire article. There were four lawyers fighting this will and they could not overturn a will written less than two days before ones death that excluded everyone but his live in girl friend. BTW, he left a 1.4 million dollar farm. I will anxiously wait to see replies if any on this event.

Rania Combs January 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm

I can’t comment on Ohio law, because I am only licensed in Texas. However, from what you describe, it appears that the court ruled that your friend had a valid holographic will. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the shortest will consisted of three words – “All to wife” – written on the bedroom wall of a man who realized his death was imminent.

Holographic wills are also valid in Texas as well if the will is completely in the handwriting of the testator and signed by him or her. I’ve written about holographic wills before in my article “Requirements and Pitfalls of Handwritten Wills,” which you can read by following the link.

The fact that your friend’s will was upheld, however, does not contradict the article. It sounds like your friend’s disposition scheme was quite simple: he wanted to disinherit his children and have his entire estate go to his girlfriend. But what if his girlfriend had died in an accident on the same day? Would he have wanted his children to have the estate? That is what would have happened under Texas’ intestacy scheme.

While his disposition scheme may have been simple, most people have unique circumstances that complicate their estate planning. These include factors such as being part of a blended family and wanting to provide for your current spouse and children from a previous marriage, having minor children, having a child with special needs or a drug problem, or having a taxable estate. Do-it-yourself estate planning in these situations is fraught with risk. For an example, read my article “Do It Yourself Estate Planning Disinherits Child.”

Finally, you indicated that your friend’s will was upheld in the court system, but at what cost? Overwhelmingly, my clients are motivated to plan their estates so that their loved ones are able to settle their estates in the most cost-effective and expeditious manner. From what you described, there seems to have been a protracted legal battle with four lawyers involved in which his children and ex-wife tried to contest the validity of the will, most probably because of the form it was in. Would your friend have wanted his girlfriend to endure that legal battle?

The attorneys fees paid for representation in the will contest, not to mention the emotional toll on his girlfriend, was probably significantly more than any attorney in his area would have charged to advise your friend and draft a will that would have been less susceptible to a challenge.

Alan February 1, 2013 at 9:10 pm

All very interesting, and somewhat valid. But come on folks, let’s get real. There are more bad, incompetent, lazy, careless, over paid lawyers and law firms out there than the law community chooses to admit to. It’s just as easy to find yourself working with one of those attorney’s as it is a competent and capable one. I know, because I have just gone through a 3 year divorce, and no one that I met or encountered along the way would I consider to be competent, diligent, fair or impressive. The judicial system here has very few cost-effective or easily accessible checks or balances. Attorneys get paid whether they do a good, bad or indifferent job, and it is difficult, time consuming and costly to seek redress if and when they mess up.

So, I am not saying Legal Zoom is perfect, but do not try to claim that attorneys are also, or that the probability is high that any attorney you find will do a better job. I wouldn’t expect an attorney to volunteer that perspective, (and that is part of the trust and integrity problem) hence why I am posting this perspective – balance was needed here.

Rania Combs February 6, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I don’t know many attorneys who will claim that members of the legal profession are perfect. Like all people, attorneys are human and fallible. Additionally, there are always going to be a certain percentage of any group of individuals, whether professional or otherwise, whose bad behavior causes disrepute to that group. The legal profession is certainly not immune.

But that doesn’t change the fact that when you use a document preparation service to prepare legal documents, you are required to agree that their employees are not acting as your attorney, that their service is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney, that they will not review your answers for legal sufficiency, draw legal conclusions, provide legal advice or apply the facts to your particular situation. Lawyers can’t disclaim those responsibilities, which gives us a huge incentive to make sure we keep up to date on legal developments to ensure our clients’ needs are met.

To safeguard clients, attorneys are bound by certain rules of professional conduct and are accountable to our state bars for behavior that falls short that. For example, rules require that an attorney handling a case be competent and diligent in our representation. An attorney is prohibited of accepting or continuing employment in a legal matter in which the attorney knows is beyond her competence, or of neglecting a legal matter entrusted to the lawyer. Aggrieved clients can file complaints for misconduct with the state bar, which will conduct an investigation. An attorney’s license to practice law (his or her livelihood) can be suspended or revoked in certain instances.

Additionally, in the event that an attorney makes serious mistakes in handling a case, the legal system gives the client redress. An attorney can be sued for malpractice, and malpractice insurance can often make the client whole. This is in stark contrast to document preparation services, which specifically disclaim any responsibility if something goes wrong.

While there may be some attorneys who give others in the profession a bad reputation, there are also many attorneys who sincerely care about justice and are making strides to ensure that legal services are accessible and affordable. A growing number of attorneys, like me, are using technology to increase access to affordable legal services. And we take great care to keep abreast on issues affecting the area in which we practice and advise our clients to ensure that their legal needs are met.

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