The deficiencies of online legal services

The 21st century has been marked by a generation of resourceful self-starters. With the advancement of technology and widespread social media outlets, there are unlimited resources available with how-to instructions for just about anything.

The do-it-yourself concept has spilled over to legal services. LegalZoom, among other online services, attempts to streamline the process of creating legal documents while drastically reducing the cost compared to working with an attorney. However, you are getting what you pay for: free or low-cost, canned legal documents.

Smart Business spoke with Lisa A. Shearman, a member at Semanoff, Ormsby, Greenberg & Torchia, LLC, about the tradeoffs of producing legal documents through a website instead of an attorney.

What does a person sacrifice by having legal documents created through a website?

A software package is not going to provide you with the necessary tools to ensure your estate plan is set up correctly. Certainly a will or a power of attorney form can be created through one of these sites, but you’re missing the ‘out of the box’ benefits 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. It includes proper planning of all assets and coordination with other advisers, such as life insurance agents, accountants and financial advisors. It involves building a relationship for you and your family.

What can an attorney provide that a website can’t?

LegalZoom’s job is to deliver a generic product. If needed, its site will connect you with an anonymous attorney who isn’t working for you, but rather LegalZoom. An attorney’s job is to assess a client’s individual circumstances, make recommendations based on those circumstances, and create a plan with that information. They work for you and are interested in assisting you with a legal need, not just selling you a product.

Estate planning attorneys assess information about their client’s family, assets and financial situation, including identifying areas of concern, such as beneficiary issues, future incapacity, health care decision making, long-term care planning, asset protection, and minimizing costs, time delay and taxes. Attorneys want to develop a relationship with their clients and the clients’ families so that in the event of a loss, they 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 there are 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 planning. LegalZoom and other document preparation services are not lawyers and offer no assurance that they keep up with changing laws.

What is the risk of getting legal documents through a website?

The disclaimer on LegalZoom’s website provides in part, that ‘[they] are not a law firm [ ] or a substitute for the advice or services of an attorney. We cannot provide any kind of legal advice, 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.

Attorneys are very familiar with these products because they 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, years of time in court and ultimately will leave a family divided. The death 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.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia, LLC