With the advancement of technology and widespread social media outlets, there are unlimited resources available. On YouTube you can get step-by-step instructions on just about anything. The home network channels teach us how to refinish furniture, retile a bathroom and renovate a house. There are TV channels, websites, apps, programs, and old-fashioned classes devoted to DIY (Do It Yourself) steps to do something without the help of a professional or expert. The concept of DIY has spilled over to legal services. Online services attempt to streamline the process of creating legal documents such as Wills, employment contracts, shareholder’s agreements, and other personal and business documents. LegalZoom partnered with Sam’s Club to provide “affordable legal help for their families and small businesses.” While picking up your bulk items shopping at Sam’s Club, you can also purchase out of the box software to write your own Will and powers of attorney. Due to COVID 19, people are feeling more vulnerable with more time at home to think about their mortality and financial stress. Does this “Lawyer in a Box” (or in a Bot) sound appealing? The costs may, but what value are you receiving?

What are you Sacrificing with a DIY Legal Form?

The obvious benefit to DIY legal services is cost, plain and simple. The cost to create a Will and other legal documents through one of these sites is certainly less than the cost a competent, experienced lawyer will charge, however, you are getting what you pay for: free or low cost canned legal documents. But what are you sacrificing? The personal interaction and evaluation you would receive in a one-on-one meeting (face-to-face, Zoom, WebEx, etc.) with an attorney. A software package is not going to provide a client with the necessary tools to assure his or her estate plan is set up correctly. Sure, you can print out a will or a form power of attorney, but you are missing the “out of the box” benefits that an attorney can provide. For instance, your Will designates who should receive your property when you die. However, if the beneficiary designations on your financial accounts, life insurance policies, and retirement accounts are inconsistent with your Will, those designations will override the directions in your Will. Estate planning involves more than just a set of written documents. When potential clients ask me, “what is the cost of a FILL IN THE BOX HERE” document I tell them the document is free. It is the 27 + years of experience and the questions that I ask that I am charging for.

What are the Benefits of Hiring an Elder Law Attorney?

If the legal document you created is incorrect or incomplete, it can actually cost more to correct it, in both time and money, than it would have to hire a lawyer in the first place. My clients are paying for the 27+ years of estate planning and elder law experience and the 3,000+ matters I have handled in this area. I not only provide competently drafted documents that are updated regularly with the purpose of maximizing their effectiveness but the exposure to a huge number of different clients, cases and scenarios, and the broad thinking and creative answers that only come from seeing a lot of different fact patterns. I can listen to what the client is telling me verbally and what they may be telling by their body language, stress points, priorities and how they react to my questions. Many clients come to me for one thing and often leave learning there are so many other great answers to the questions they did not know they had. I cannot tell you how many clients have thanked me for obtaining services for them that they did not know they may be entitled to or answers to problems they did not know they had. Do you think people send Thank You letters to Wills.com? They do not because it is a platform for one size fits all documents and is not intended to probe, listen, and anticipate needs the user often does not know they have. We coordinate with other advisors, such as life insurance agents, accountants, and financial advisors. I build a relationship with my client and their family.

Case Scenarios

I had two calls recently that reminded me of the old adage “you get what you pay for.”

In the first case, clients came to me at a client’s recommendation. Their mother died several years ago and their father died recently. They needed help with Dad’s estate and the remainder of Mom’s estate. Part of the services they needed is to file an inheritance tax return. In PA if you make an estimated pre-payment of inheritance tax you get a 5% discount on the tax due. In this case the discount they would have received had they made the prepayment would have been over $10,000.00. Had they contacted me when their mother died the amount of potential savings would have far, far exceeded just the tax discount. In this case had they had advice from an experienced elder law attorney they would have avoided a good deal of cost and inconvenience. Other matters occurred which caused them additional issues which good legal advice could have prevented.

Separately a gentleman called me recently who was asking for asset protection help a year and a half after his wife went into a nursing home and the nursing home applied for Medicaid. He explained he did consult an elder law attorney but he did not want to pay the lawyer’s fee to prepare the Medicaid application. To save money, he decided to have the nursing home do it for free. In avoiding the lawyer’s fee, this nice gentleman wasted many times the cost of the lawyer’s fee in lost asset protection (to the tune of a low six figure amount). I blame the lawyer he consulted for not communicating the value of the representation and the planning aspect. This was another example of a DIY situation where short-sighted cost containment led to huge, preventable losses.

What to Take into Consideration?

LegalZoom’s job is to deliver a generic product. If needed, their site will connect you with an anonymous attorney who is not working for you, but rather LegalZoom. Our job instead, is to assess our client’s individual circumstances, make recommendations based on those circumstances, and create a plan. We work for you and are interested in assisting you with a legal need, not just selling you a product. We will ask questions that software will not. We will assess answers that may inspire other questions. We strive to understand not only the disposition of assets but the relationships and family dynamic of the parties involved, how the family views money, tax issues which may not be obvious and a whole host of other issues a simplistic software package is not designed to address. We want to carry out your goals. We make sure your wishes are carried out and not just create a fill-in form which may meet some needs but not others. Most importantly, DIY programs do not ask the questions needed to get to the true nature of your needs. There is no “one size fits all” in estate planning, especially when you have unique circumstances. DIY programs do not address the various issues which can come up in a second marriage, same sex marriage or special needs situations. Furthermore, with the constant changes in laws, it is important to understand how these changes may affect your planning. The disclaimer on their website provides in part, that “[they] are not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. We cannot provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.” Their “terms of use” is pages long, in small print, and essentially provides a complete disclaimer of any legal responsibility to you. Is this what you want?

If you want a firm that has represented over 3,000 clients covering estate planning, elder law, Medicaid, estate administration, asset protection, guardianships and almost every estate planning document out there instead of canned software, then we can help. Call our firm at (610) 940-0650 for a consultation today.

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