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Estate Planning: Legal Self-Help May Result in Legal Self-Hurt
By Brooke Barron on December 4, 2018

In 2018, it is easier than ever to seek legal services through websites such as Nolo.com, BuildaWill.com, and LegalZoom. Although these sites may seem like a cheaper alternative to hiring a lawyer, their pitfalls and shortcomings can result in expensive mistakes. These ‘do-it-yourself’ websites lack the expertise, skill, and comprehensive knowledge to handle most legal matters effectively.

The law is constantly changing and will continue to do so. Lawyers in New York are required to be well versed in new and/or modified estate laws; the same cannot be said of self-help legal websites. These websites may not be regularly updated with current or amended laws, which can result in dire consequences for your estate. In some instances, completing out dated standard legal forms offered by these sites can leave you unprotected with little recourse. For example, LegalZoom’s disclaimer states, “…LegalZoom is prohibited from providing any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation to a consumer about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.” Alternatively, an estate attorney will thoroughly discuss your estate matters and answer any questions or concerns you may have; it is an estate attorney’s objective to ensure that their clients are well protected and understand their options.

Additionally, estate planning regulations and laws vary by state. When working with clients, estate attorneys have the expertise and knowledge to understand each state’s differing and intricate estate laws. This is crucial, especially when determining how to adequately distribute an estate, pass assets to beneficiaries and how to properly protect assets when filing for Medicaid or Medicare. Moreover, estate attorneys use years of practical life experience to relate to a client’s specific needs and situation. Self-help legal sites often fail to take into consideration jurisdictional distinctions or real world factors. These websites also commonly fail to take into account specific tax changes that are important for estate planning purposes.

Furthermore, unlike most products you buy online, there is no refund, return, or exchange process for an ineffectively purchased online legal form. Self-help legal sites contain lengthy disclaimers that each customer must agree to in order to use the services and products provided. These disclaimers expressly deny liability if the site’s online forms are unreliable, inaccurate, or do not meet your legal needs. For example, the waiver agreement all LegalZoom customer’s agree to when purchasing their product(s) states, “…we each agree to resolve those disputes through binding arbitration or in small claims court rather than in a court of general jurisdiction…and you and LegalZoom are each waiving the right to a trial by jury or to participate in a class action.”

Major life events and changes in circumstances are other important considerations when determining how to fulfill your estate planning needs. Most people will need to update their estate planning documents frequently throughout the years to accommodate for life events, such as getting married, having or adopting children, getting divorced, buying/selling real estate and/or changing guardians or trustees. It is crucial to make sure any estate planning modifications are done correctly or they could affect the validity of your estate documents and potentially lead to probate court. An estate attorney will be well versed in your estate matter(s), making it easy for the attorney to quickly and effectively modify your documents. Also, unlike a self-help legal site, an estate attorney will inform a client directly if any major estate laws have been modified or changed that could affect their current executed estate documents.

Basically, when using online legal self-help sites, you are leaving yourself susceptible to future complications, more expenses, and possibly, leaving you with an estate plan you did not intend. When executing estate planning documents, it is always advisable to connect with an experienced estate attorney in order to provide peace of mind that your estate will pass along the things that matter to those who matter.

If you or someone you know has questions regarding estate planning, please contact our Estate Planning law team at 716-636-7600 or questionsfor@hoganwillig.com.

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