DIY Online Legal Services

Q: Rob, should I use one of those online legal services to do my estate planning documents?

A:  Today, you can learn almost anything online. There are TV channels, websites, apps, programs and old fashioned classes devoted to DIY (Do It Yourself). LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, among other online services, attempt to streamline the process of creating Wills, employment contracts and other legal documents. LegalZoom recently 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.

Sound appealing? Certainly it is less expensive in the short run than paying a lawyer. But when you buy on line legal services, what are you actually getting? Low cost canned legal documents. But these low costs are only the upfront costs.

What is the real cost of online legal documents?

For starters, you sacrifice the personal interaction and evaluation you would receive in a one to one meeting with an attorney.

  • A software package does not provide you with the necessary tools to assure that your estate plan is set up correctly.
  • It will not review the items outside of probate that are not controlled by your will.
  • It is not going to teach you how the tax implications of these different assets work and whether you want some, none, or all of the different types of assets being received by beneficiaries at different times or what should happen if one predeceases you.
  • It will not investigate the family dynamic and ask the hard questions about what is likely to occur if you become disabled or die.
  • It will not talk to you about how to deal with those issues and avoid problems that come when you have the documents but do not have the planning.
  • It is not going to discuss the devastating costs of long term care and how to plan for them.

But Rob, online legal services provide lawyers to help if I need it, right?

Legalzoom will connect you with an anonymous attorney who does not work for you, but rather for LegalZoom. My job instead, is to assess your individual circumstances, make recommendations based on those circumstances, and create a plan with that information. I work for you and I am interested in assisting you with a legal need, not just selling you a product.

And let’s be realistic. Is the salaried attorney at a large, national corporation really going to be able to give you experienced, knowledgeable advices on what happens if you become disabled in your state? Can that attorney say that he has helped clients through several hundred estate administrations in Pennsylvania (like I can) or over 300 guardianships (like I can) or have personally asked the questions and reviewed the answers of over 1000 people? Let’s be real, the answer is a resounding NO.

The lawyer who works for one of these companies, as intelligent or capable as he or she may be, can read a book or a wikipage that is provided by the company and probably has had little to know real world experience in helping clients like you to do what you need done. For the same reason you can get frustrated when you speak to a customer service rep in a foreign country who tries to use a canned answer on a screen and really does not understand what assistance you are seeking, a software program or an in house lawyer with a computer screen will not replace someone who has represented clients in real life estate planning situations.

And what about the private generalist lawyers who go under contract with the NOLOs of the world and are contractually obligated to give you a product at a cost far below what it costs to run an office? Do you really think they are experts in their field or are going to give you comprehensive services for their below-market price? Or are they really there to hope that your next accident, divorce or whatever other matter will keep the lights on.

No One Size Fits All

Experienced elder law attorneys like me (and other experienced colleagues) assess information about you, your family, your assets and financial situation. We identify areas of concern, such as beneficiary issues, future incapacity, healthcare decision making, long term care planning, asset protection, and minimizing costs, time delay, and taxes. We want to develop a relationship with our clients and their families so that in the event of a loss, we will be able to provide some comfort and guide them through the legal process. There is no “one size fits all” in estate planning, especially when you have unique circumstances. DIY programs do not address the various issues that 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. LegalZoom and other document preparation services are not lawyers and offer no assurance that they keep up with changing laws. The disclaimer on LegalZoom’s 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.

We are very familiar with these products because we have seen their ineffectiveness which has been an increasing source of litigation. The savings your family member or business partner may have obtained on the creation of the documents is lost in the first consultation with an attorney when things go wrong. Litigation will cost beneficiaries thousands of dollars and years of time in court and ultimately will leave a family divided. The death or disability of a family member is stressful enough. Without proper planning, that stress will only be compounded as families try to navigate through the administration process with conflicting documents and directions.

About the Author

Robert M. Slutsky

Named One of the Main Line’s Top Elder Law Attorneys in 2015

by Main Line Today

Robert M. Slutsky has practiced Elder Law since 1992 and was one of the area’s first elder law attorney. Mr. Slutsky advises clients on Medicaid and Asset Protection Planning, Guardianships, Wills, Trusts, Powers of Attorney, Estate Administration, Special Needs Planning and General Estate Planning. He has represented for profit and non-profit elder care providers and the Pennsylvania Department of Aging. Mr. Slutsky has been the solicitor for the Montgomery County Office of Aging and Adult Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Montgomery County, for over 15 years.