The Washington Attorney General’s office distinguishes between being provided with a legal form and with being provided legal advice. In a press release, Attorney General Rob McKenna states that “LegalZoom offers do-it-yourself legal documents online but can’t provide you with legal advice or tell you which forms to fill out.”
LegalZoom and other services frequently advertise their product as a way to start businesses, prepare wills, and to handle many other tasks that require a legal document. Where these services fall short, McKenna’s office explains, is in providing advice on what document is necessary, what a document will actually accomplish and, in several instances, in providing a document that is suitable under a particular state’s law.
As part of a consent decree, LegalZoom will agree to refrain from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, selling personal information obtained from Washington customers or misrepresenting the benefits of any estate distribution document, and to ensure that the forms available for purchase will comply with state law.
In our office, we often hear clients ask, “Why can’t I just go online or buy a software package to complete a will?” Sometimes a client will bring in a document that was prepared online or via software and ask us to review it. More often than not, the client expected the document to accomplish some goal that, as it turns out, the document does not even address. Even worse, documents are sometimes brought to us that are not even valid under Maryland law.
Clients purchase forms for wills online, expecting that it will solve the problem of estate tax. They purchase trust forms, expecting to completely bypass probate or to protect their heirs from creditors. Boilerplate documents do not take your individual concerns into mind, simply because the document cannot ask you questions. An attorney will ask you what your goals are, will review your individual situation, and will advise you accordingly.
On one occasion, a client came to this writer with a trust that the client prepared online by himself. The client was rather proud of this document, explaining to me that his kids would have their inheritance held in trust so that, if they were to get into financial trouble, their inheritance would always be safe. Spending a few minutes with the document, I realized rather quickly that there was no such protection for the client’s children. We spoke about his goals, about the pros and cons of his intentions, and he ultimately got what he wanted: a trust that would include “spendthrift” provisions ensuring some financial security for his children.
You only get one shot at proper estate planning: when you’re gone, you can’t fix mistakes from beyond the grave and neither can your lawyer. Understand the difference between buying a form online and obtaining advice from an attorney. You (and your family) will be glad you did.