The Law Office of Jo Ann Bui Leslie
Joan Leslie*

* Board Certified, Estate Planning and Probate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization
Specializing in Wills, Trusts, Estate Planning, 
Guardianship, and Probate & Estate Administration

Office Visits By Appointment Only: Dallas, Texas 75206

 

Why Not Legal Zoom? 


State Law

First you should know that probate (and therefore wills law, declarations of guardian for your minor children, and disability planning documents in general, i.e., powers of attorney, medical powers of attorney, designation and appointment of remains, etc.) are based on state law and therefore vary from state to state. The cookie cutter language in an on-line will may or may not comply with the laws of the state in which you are located.

What state's laws does Legal Zoom use?

No one in particular.  They use the generic principles we learn as first-year law students that we refer to as the law of no man's land.    

 

Latest News: LegalZoom Sued in Class Action for Unauthorized Practice of Law (December 18, 2009).  (Currently,  LegalZoom is attempting to remove the case from State Court to Federal Court.)

More on Lawsuit(s) against LegalZoom- Unfair and Misleading to Non-Legally Trained Consumers. This is worth reading if you think that you can "save" money by using any online "legal" or form "legal" software from the store. Think again about the couple of hundred worth of savings.  I PROMISE you will end up spending more than that to fix the problems it creates for you. 

More on Class action lawsuit...


Think about it,  you never hear lawyers say they are licensed by the United States of America.  Layers are licensed to practice law in the State(s) they are licensed in.  Again, LegalZoom tries to be the law of every man's land, such land does not exist.  


No Attorney, No Legal Advice, No Counseling 

Second, and what I believe is most important is that on-line companies contend that they do not provide legal advice (if they did they would be violating the unauthorized practice of law. That is (1) you can’t practice law in a state you are not authorized to practice law in and (2) you cannot practice law period if you are not licensed by the State Bar.  

Therefore, you are admittedly not getting “legal advice”. You are just getting cookie cutter language or what people often refer to as a “form”. It certainly will not be able to provide you the legal advice a licensed attorney can provide you to address your planning objectives and/or your fact specific question and answer session. 

Little things that you don’t even know to consider

Examples

Q: “What does the will control?” 

A: Only probate assets.

Q: “So, what are probate assets?  What about “non-probate” assets?” (You might want to follow-up and ask your attorney.)

Q: “How are those [non-probate] assets controlled at my death?”

A:  A-Ha.  The answer is,  “It depends” but I can assure you that the on-line “form” doesn’t address any of that. 

That on-line “company” [not an attorney] doesn’t offer any legal advice or an open forum you can ask follow-up questions to [e.g., consulting with your attorney]. In fact,  read the excerpts of the language that I pulled directly from their website disclaimer.  

What if I prepare a will on-line and then ask an attorney to review it later?  

If, after the fact, you decide you need to call an attorney to review your document(s) and provide you with legal advice, in all honesty,  you will end up spending more money than if you would have gone directly to that attorney in the first place.  Be prepared to pay the attorney his or her hourly rate,  which on average can be anywhere between $150/hour (if you are lucky, inexpensive hourly rate)- $300/ hour.  

Why would the attorney charge you so much just to review it if you already had a good document?

We don't know if you have a good document.  You don't know if you have a good document.  

In all honesty,  we attorneys have our on legal documents we like to start with.  Especially, attorneys such as myself that concentrate in this area of law.  I have seen and reviewed several different will planning documents, powers of attorney, trusts, etc. Although I find many to be substantially the same,  there are often key differences when one sentence is left out. Not only that but the overall organization of the document may be substantially different than the way one attorney prepares one of his documents.  We can never be sure that they have clearly omitted something very important or inadvertently put key instructions in a different place unless we go through it with a fine-toothed comb.  That takes more time then starting with what we are familiar with.

Even one sentence could be crucial in: how debts or taxes are paid back at your death,  in determining whether the judge will allow us to provide no witnesses and have a straight forward probate hearing, or whether the document addresses if you leave someone something and uh- oh, that someone has now died and you have not re-done your will.

It is not just about reading the words on the paper but knowing what and how those acts are defined under the laws of your state.  Certain actions are dictated by statute. Sometimes you have to specifically address actions,  other times such action is applied as statute whether or not you say it.  In your own life,  you may want something different.  

Additionally,  myself, like many wills and estate planing attorneys,  draft a will and other miscellaneous related legal documents to prepare for death or disability, based on the theory that changes do occur in life. We discuss and think about how to draft for those changes so you don't have to draft a new will every time a little change occurs in your life. We know the probate laws of our state.  What those statutes say about the words in your will (or the words you left out of your will).  We know what happens if you want to list every piece of silver, crystal and china you own in your will with names of first cousins, once removed.  How to really get them this stuff but avoid unnecessary hassles that cost your family time and money later.  

I charge flat fees for many simple wills.  To review other legal documents,  I like most other attorneys,  would charge my hourly rate. It takes more time and we don't want to be responsible because somebody else left out a word, sentence or punctuation mark and it impacts your over all plan.  We know our own documents as a starting point.  That's the truth.  

Consultation

Additionally,  you get the question and answer session, consultation, and benefit of legal advice as well as building that relationship to call on someone you know for future needs and questions.  It doesn't always mean we are billing you to ask questions but it is part of the overall process.  You are truly missing that if you decide to try to do it yourself.  I don't charge for our initial consultation.    


Most importantly, ask yourself why you wanted a will in a first place? 

Most likely, the answer is because you are a responsible person and don’t want your loved ones to have to deal with questions or financial issues you left unanswered for the day you pass away. That being the case, remember the whole point of this document is its validity and effectiveness to meet the requirements of that state’s probate laws when you die and to provide guidance as to how you want your affairs administered. 

Probate attorneys are the ones that walk your loved ones through this legal process when you die.  If your attorney doesn’t handle probate, how can you be sure that he knows and understands, not just the law but the practical guidance that the instructions in your will can get the job done the way you envisioned. 

Now, ask yourself how many times are you planning on dying. The one time it happens,  will you be confident that things will happen as you guessed with that on-line, fill in the blank form?  

Saving money?  Think again.  

Maybe you save a couple of hundred dollars to have an on-line will now vs. paying a licensed attorney, from whom you should get the benefit of consultation and a relationship so that you can easily contact that attorney when you have questions.

More often than not, probate attorneys make more money assisting families in probating an “on-line” home-made or handwritten will, then they do on a valid will that they or one of their colleagues have drafted.  Some are not as adamant in telling you this because they'd rather get your business later.  I prefer to help from the out-set before it is too late.  I prefer planning for clients over cleaning up the mess later.  

Although, you may think, “I’ll be dead, what do I care,”  the exact purposes you were trying to defeat is that under wills and probate law, generally,  the costs to probate and administer (and sometimes even litigate confusing or potentially conflicting provisions of your will) come out of the funds of your estate.  That means that bank account or the house that had to be sold is what pays for the hourly attorneys fees. 

Do the math.  At an hourly rate of $150/hr- $300/ hr (on average), you could maybe have two office meetings or a couple of phone calls and an office meeting and spend more than you would have if you just paid to have the proper legal advice of a licensed attorney to have your “simple” will drafted instead of trying to save a couple of hundred dollars by using an on-line form.  I think that is really what the debate comes down to.  



Added Disability Planning Incorporated With Your Will Planing

You may also have situations in your family that you may not even know can be avoided or benefit from disability planning.  There are certain “disability planning” documents that an attorney who concentrates in this area can prepare for you as part of your “flat-fee package” or more specifically to address your situation. 

Planning in this area can sometimes be used to avoid court supervised, cumbersome, and expensive guardianships of incapacitated adults.  If you have any concerns about this for yourself, your spouse, your parents or even your adult children, you should consider this an added benefit of meeting with an attorney to gather advice regarding this issue. Some thing you certainly cannot obtain from an online “will” form.  This is outside the scope of your will and sometimes even outside the scope of the standard Power of Attorney that an attorney who does not concentrate in this area will be able to provide you.  It takes drafting very specific language requirements into certain documents if you want or need to plan for scenarios of financial and medical control over an adult for when they become incapacitated.  



Beyond the "Simple" 

Beyond the “simple” will or basic death planning, meeting with an attorney who knows this area of the law can share with you secrets that you may be able to benefit more financially by enacting into your planning. One example is drafting and helping fund particular types of trusts to save or defer [death] taxes (if you are someone who needs it, and additionally, someone who wants this in your planning).  If you don't even know if you'd be subject to death taxes,  again the consultation with an attorney who concentrates in this area can assess that and help spot any issues for you. An attorney that concentrates in these areas of the law can tell you as much or as little as you want or need to know.