When you think of being able to prepare legal documents online and on the cheap, almost everyone I know has heard of Legal Zoom. We have all seen the commercials on T.V., advertising how your life will be better off by filling out their forms online and saving hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on attorney fees for your estate plan or business start-up documents.
Getting an Estate Plan Before Your Vacation
Many families plan trips this time of year. My office receives several calls each summer from families who are “leaving this Saturday” or “flying out next week” for some vacation they have planned. As the trip nears, the thought that something could possibly happen to them while traveling creeps in to their mind.
After spending several thousand dollars on a vacation, the last thing the family may want to do is spend several thousand dollars more on an estate plan. That is when the Legal Zoom commercial pops up, praising your diligence in taking care of your family, preparing for all of the “what-if’s” in life and commending you for doing “whatever it takes to take care of your family”. When it is time to plan for your family’s future, Legal Zoom says they are here for you. But are they?
What You Don’t Know About Legal Zoom
At no time do we review your answers for legal sufficiency, draw legal conclusions, provide legal advice, opinions or recommendations about your legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms, or strategies, or apply the law to the facts of your particular situation. LegalZoom is not a law firm and may not perform services performed by an attorney. LegalZoom, its Services, and its forms or templates are not a substitute for the advice or services of an attorney.
What does that mean? It means that LegalZoom is simply supplying you with forms. They cannot, or will not, tell you which forms are the best for your particular situation. They also won’t tell you what you are missing out on by selecting one particular form over another. Their commercials convey that you will be safe and that your family will be taken care of, but then they also tell you their product is not the substitute for the advice or services of an attorney.
LegalZoom strives to keep its legal documents accurate, current and up-to-date. However, because the law changes rapidly, LegalZoom cannot guarantee that all of the information on the Site or Applications is completely current. The law is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and may be subject to interpretation by different courts. The law is a personal matter, and no general information or legal tool like the kind LegalZoom provides can fit every circumstance.
Furthermore, the legal information contained on the Site and Applications is not legal advice and is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date. Therefore, if you need legal advice for your specific problem, or if your specific problem is too complex to be addressed by our tools, you should consult a licensed attorney in your area.
Keeping up with the changes in the law is hard. I get it. That is what attorneys are trained to do! What LegalZoom really means here is that they don’t want to be responsible for all of that hard work. Never mind that your family’s well being may depend on it. Oh, and one more thing…LegalZoom doesn’t want to be responsible for analyzing the law and then telling you whether your actual circumstances fit the document that they are providing to you. To me this sounds like the equivalent of buying your legal documents out of the back of a van on a street-corner:
“I have a wife and three kids. I own a home and have a 401(k). Which documents should I choose?”
(Guy On Street Corner) “Uhhh. Here is a bunch of legal documents. You choose.”
“Will this one protect my family?”
(Guy On Street Corner) “I don’t know. You should really ask an attorney. But before you do that, you should watch one of our other commercials and buy this document.”
…[Y]ou are and will be representing yourself in any legal matter you undertake through LegalZoom’s legal document service.
On our Site, through our Applications, and through certain partners, we offer self-help “fill in the blank” forms… You understand that your purchase, download, and/or- use of a form document is neither legal advice nor the practice of law, and that each form and any applicable instructions or guidance is not customized to your particular needs.
I feel like I am beating a dead horse at this point. If there was ever any doubt, you are simply getting forms — “self-help fill in the blank forms” at that. Not only are you getting fill in the blank forms, you don’t even know if those forms are up to date or if they fit your needs.
Well if anything goes wrong, at least it is a big company that your family can sue when you die. Oh, wait, never mind:
In the unlikely event that the LegalZoom Customer Care Center is unable to resolve your complaint to your satisfaction (or if LegalZoom has not been able to resolve a dispute it has with you after attempting to do so informally), we each agree to resolve those disputes through binding arbitration or in small claims court rather than in a court of general jurisdiction.
Remember when you filled out that form? You agreed to binding arbitration. This means you are giving up substantial rights in the event that LegalZoom causes any damages to you or your estate.
LIMITATION OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNIFICATION. EXCEPT AS PROHIBITED BY LAW, YOU WILL HOLD LEGALZOOM AND ITS OFFICERS, DIRECTORS, EMPLOYEES, AND AGENTS HARMLESS FOR ANY INDIRECT, PUNITIVE, SPECIAL, INCIDENTAL, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGE, HOWEVER IT ARISES (INCLUDING ATTORNEYS’ FEES AND ALL RELATED COSTS AND EXPENSES OF LITIGATION AND ARBITRATION, OR AT TRIAL OR ON APPEAL, IF ANY, WHETHER OR NOT LITIGATION OR ARBITRATION IS INSTITUTED), WHETHER IN AN ACTION OF CONTRACT, NEGLIGENCE, OR OTHER TORTIOUS ACTION, OR ARISING OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THIS AGREEMENT, INCLUDING WITHOUT LIMITATION ANY CLAIM FOR PERSONAL INJURY OR PROPERTY DAMAGE, ARISING FROM THIS AGREEMENT AND ANY VIOLATION BY YOU OF ANY FEDERAL, STATE, OR LOCAL LAWS, STATUTES, RULES, OR REGULATIONS, EVEN IF LEGALZOOM HAS BEEN PREVIOUSLY ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGE. EXCEPT AS PROHIBITED BY LAW, IF THERE IS LIABILITY FOUND ON THE PART OF LEGALZOOM, IT WILL BE LIMITED TO THE AMOUNT PAID FOR THE PRODUCTS AND/OR SERVICES, AND UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES WILL THERE BE CONSEQUENTIAL OR PUNITIVE DAMAGES. SOME STATES DO NOT ALLOW THE EXCLUSION OR LIMITATION OF PUNITIVE, INCIDENTAL OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES, SO THE PRIOR LIMITATION OR EXCLUSION MAY NOT APPLY TO YOU. THIS PARAGRAPH DOES NOT APPLY TO NORTH CAROLINA CONSUMERS.
Yikes. That is a lot of legalese. What does it mean? You are agreeing that you will not hold LegalZoom responsible for ANY damages arising out of this “agreement”. Even if you inadvertently violate a federal, state, or local law (and happen to go to prison for it) AND LegalZoom had reason to know that this could happen to you, you are still absolving them of any responsibility. On top of that, even if LegalZoom is ever found responsible for any wrongdoing, the amount of the award you are limited to will be the amount you paid for the product. So that Last Will & Testament you bought for $69 which resulted in $20,000 of probate fees and $40,000 of estate tax — your family can sue LegalZoom. If you win, you agree that you only get your money back. This brings new meaning to a “money back” guarantee.
Should You Use Legal Zoom to Prepare Your Estate Plan?
I obviously don’t recommend using LegalZoom based on the discussion above. You will never know the planning choices that you are missing out on by using some fill-in-the-blank estate planning form.
- Are you missing out on giving your children asset protection for their inheritance?
- What happens if your son or daughter dies and the assets go to the in-law? Will your grandchildren inherit anything?
- What if anyone in the family develops a special need (e.g. from a car accident or other health issue)?
- Are you exposed to estate or inheritance tax?
- Do your documents protect from the threat of incapacity?
- What is the best way to make specific gifts? Should you use retirement accounts or just add a provision to your will or trust?
- Can or should your children serve as trustees? What other options are out there?
I could quite literally spend the rest of the afternoon listing out the various considerations that are likely not addressed by a do-it-yourself fill-in-the-blank, form. You get what you pay for. In this case, you get forms that are barely worth the paper they are written on.
LegalZoom is not the only culprit out there. There are plenty of attorneys who offer to prepare wills, trusts and other estate planning documents for a few hundred dollars for you. When an attorney offers to do something like that for so cheap, you have to know that something is missing. What is missing is the counsel, advice, customization, and guarantee that your plan will work for you as intended. In those cases, the attorney is usually just the one filling out the form for you and not analyzing or customizing your plan.
Our firm’s process is different. We spend up to 2 (or sometimes more) hours with you for your free initial consultation. Then, if you are ready to proceed, we spend another 45 – 90 minutes designing your plan (don’t worry – we usually schedule a second meeting for this). We schedule our final signing meetings for 3 hours so that you can be sure that the documents you are signing are what you intended and that they are accurate to suit your family’s situation. After signing your documents, we have another meeting which typically lasts between 20 minutes to 1 hour where we make sure that all of your assets are aligned with your estate plan properly. In addition, you get free phone calls and free meetings to discuss your estate plan at any time once your plan is in place.
While all of that comes with a cost, there is NO doubt that you will be satisfied knowing that your family will be taken care of if something happens to you. Peace of mind is worth paying for it. Our value is in the quality of our service and the advice we provide. LegalZoom may sound good when you see their terrific marketing campaign late at night on your television, but don’t fall for it. You should contact an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure that you are truly taken care of.
Zach Wiegand is a Minnesota probate attorney and estate planning attorney and the owner of Gold Leaf Estate Planning, LLC. Gold Leaf Estate Planning is an estate planning law firm that also handles probate and trust administration in Minnesota. We serve the Twin Cities metropolitan area with a focus on estate planning for clients in Burnsville, Eagan, Savage, Prior Lake, Lakeville, Apple Valley, Eden Prairie and the South Metro as well as clients in Woodbury, Lake Elmo, Maplewood, Oakdale, St. Paul and the East Metro. Our firm has offices in both Burnsville and Woodbury (Lake Elmo). The firm also handles probate in Dakota County, Washington County, Scott County, Hennepin County, and Ramsey County and most other counties in the Twin Cities Metro area. Zach has been named a Super Lawyer – Rising Star for 2017, 2018, and 2019. In addition, Zach is a member of the Society of Financial Service Professionals, the Twin Cities Estate Planning Council, and WealthCounsel – a national organization of estate planning attorneys dedicated to practice excellence. You can contact Zach via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (952) 658-6503. Gold Leaf Estate Planning is located in Burnsville at 3000 County Road 42 W., Suite 310, Burnsville, MN 55337 and in Woodbury/Lake Elmo at 8653 Eagle Point Boulevard, Lake Elmo, MN 55042.