The advent of the internet has lead to many aspects of life becoming simpler and more user friendly. In some areas, where a trained professional was needed previously, individuals now have the opportunity to do many things for themselves such as trading stocks, preparing their taxes and finding insurance quotes. This also became true with preparing legal documents especially with the launch of Legal Zoom in 2001.
Do-it-yourself legal documents are not new and in the estate planning world, both professionals and non professionals alike have turned to self created documents to save time and money. Programs like Legal Zoom have improved upon this by creating interactive forms that are created by professionals and reviewed prior to execution. But, are these documents all they are cracked up to be? The key considerations with regard to choosing a DIY legal document are:
Cost-One of the most attractive aspects of DIY planning is the cost. For individuals who need the protection of a will (or other legal instruments) but lack the funds to pay for a qualified attorney, using a service like Legal Zoom may appear to be a way to have your cake and eat it to. But, much like many things in life, when you purchase a DIY legal product, you do get what you pay for. It is not that the will be ineffective or found to be improperly drafted. Rather, a DIY legal product is meant for mass use and tailored to the most typical situations. For those whose lives deviate from the typical, a DIY product may not provide the flexibility needed to properly protect your family and property.
Simplicity-In addition to cost, the desire to have a “simple will” leads many to use DIY products. Even for those who use attorneys, it is extremely common for a client to request that a document be kept simple. The problem with this approach is that it is a rarity that a person’s life is as simple as they believe it to be for estate planning purposes. Family issues, tax issues and health issues are just a few of the common reasons that a client’s planning needs to deviate from the simplest path possible. Using DIY products gives a person control over keeping their documents simple-for better or for worse.
Attorney Support–Legal Zoom and comparable programs have marketed themselves wisely by incorporating the use of an attorney to review the client produced work as a selling point. Having a qualified attorney review your work is significantly better than simply preparing a document with no outside help. But, it comes with certain limitations in this context. First, many of the attorneys who work for Legal Zoom and other document preparation software providers are providing their services as a side business to their main clients. Given the low fees that the document preparation software providers charge, the fees the attorneys receive rarely warrant the same care they give their own clients. Second, because the goal of using such software is to prepare a legally sufficient document, it is unlikely that a reviewing attorney will give more feedback beyond what is needed to have the document found to be properly prepared and executed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when the document needs to be submitted to court, the reviewing attorney will not be available to guide the client through that process. In the context of estate planning, this will require finding a new attorney often at a time when other things are more of a priority.
In summary, DIY legal drafting products are absolutely better than not having any planning documents at all. For some people, it is a blessing to have such a service available. But, for most, it is likely not sufficient to fully protect your family and property and ensure that you will have the right people available to help you when you need them. And more than anything, that is the real benefit of using an attorney.
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