The Problem with Rocket Lawyer, LegalZoom & Other Online Estate Planning Services

Avoid Online Estate Planning Services

Over the past decade or so, online do-it-yourself legal services such as LegalZoom, Nolo, and Rocket Lawyer have become extremely popular. On these sites, users can fill out a few forms and generate boilerplate legal documents for estate planning and a variety of other applications

Such services have exerted a powerful draw on consumers for a simple reason: they’re cheap. While you can expect to pay up to a thousand or so dollars to have an estate attorney create a living trust or will, online legal services—fighting to dominate this growing 5 billion dollar industry—charge a fraction of this, and even offer attractive package deals and even monthly subscriptions.

For the average middle class individual who thinks their financial situation is simple, it can seem sensible to save a few dollars by taking the DIY approach, rather than splurge on a lawyer.

But the truth is that estate planning is an extremely complex area of law. A significant part of the cost of consulting with a lawyer is the time spent in actual consultation. When you sit down with a lawyer, you have the opportunity to ask questions and develop an in-depth understanding of your options.

You can’t create a legal document that will fulfill your needs without first having an informed understanding of the consequences of your choices.

In our legal practice, almost every estate planning client we have worked with has had an “oh!” moment in which they realized that they had overlooked or misunderstood something critical.

Creating an estate planning document is an act of translation—taking an individual’s desires and transforming them into binding legal language.

When you combine family and finances, the results are complicated. It takes a little work to tease out and clarify the legal implications of your personal wishes. Oftentimes, it’s necessary to explain the consequences of a choice in order for a client to understand the significance of that choice—and whether or not it’s the right choice.

In much the same way that a meteorologist can create an informed hypothesis of what will happen if a hurricane comes ashore, a lawyer can explain how various legal scenarios will play out. You get the chance to see how your trust, will, power of attorney, or other legal document will function when the time comes for it to fulfill its role. You may discover that certain legal choices will not have the consequences that you anticipated, or may not be the most effective way of achieving a desired goal. Working with an attorney ensures that your intents and wishes are translated accurately into a legally binding document.

Software can’t emulate this process. Perhaps someday, but not yet.

In a story on the Today Show’s website, Steven Nadel of Seward & Kissel succinctly sums up why cookie cutter legal services fall short: “The biggest danger is that [an online service] doesn’t take into account emotion and relationships. Whereas if you’re talking to an attorney, the attorney will be able to sense where to go, what to push on. When it comes to family planning, you don’t want to make a mistake and just check off a box and do the wrong thing because the computer didn’t have the right question to ask.”

But the biggest risk of online legal services isn’t that they’ll misrepresent your wishes, but rather, that your wishes won’t stand up in court.

Estate planning documents created without the involvement of an experienced attorney can fail catastrophically when challenged in court. In fact, many attorneys who don’t care how they generate billing hours actually embrace the growth of these services. David Swift, a partner at one of the largest legal firms in the country, Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, was quoted as saying, “Attorneys haven’t minded [older DIY legal document services] because those kinds of documents generate a lot of legal work. The same thing is ultimately happening with all the online products. They open up a lot of problems that can result in litigation.”

For big-time estate attorneys, losing low-level clients is a small price to pay in exchange for the opportunity to earn much more litigating challenges to web-sourced wills and trusts.

Yes, using online estate planning services is inexpensive and convenient. But they’re convenient in much the same way that it’s convenient to ask your neighbor for medical advice, rather than going to a doctor—it’s convenient in the short-term, but it’s very likely that you’ll pay dearly in the end.

If you would like assistance with creating a living trust, will, power of attorney, or other critical estate planning document, Toeppen & Grevious can help. To learn more, give us a call at (916) 400-4516, or send us a message using our contact form.