Q&A: Do-It-Yourself Legal Sites

Question:

If I can write my own will, why would I pay an attorney to do it for me? Can’t I just pay to use one of those forms off the Internet?

Answer:

Yes, it is possible to draft your own will using a generic form from some website. However, there are hidden risks inherent in using generic forms. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

You can buy the raw materials for a new roof for your house and build it yourself. But that doesn’t mean you should.

You can cross the street without looking both ways, but that doesn’t mean you should.

Hiring an attorney greatly reduces your risk. Lawyers have years of special training to see those risks that are hidden, and take the proper steps to avoid or minimize those risks. When you hire an attorney to draft a will or other legal document for you, you are not paying simply for information. You are paying for expertise, years of study and practice, documents tailored for your specific situation. You are paying for specialized treatment. You are paying for an analysis of the costs against the benefits of making a particular decision. You are paying for legal advice that cannot be duplicated by a page of search engine results or a one-size-fits-all template.

When you hire an attorney, you are paying for legal advice.

If you pay for a form off the Internet, you don’t know that you have filled it in correctly. You don’t know if it has been properly signed and witnessed. You don’t know whether the form is based on outdated laws. The company providing you the form won’t tell you if you have made a mistake, if you have created problems that affect your family, or even if your document is binding. Legally, they CANNOT tell you these things, because that would be giving legal advice. And that would be the unauthorized practice of law.

One attorney has compared using do-it-yourself legal services to using WebMD to diagnose yourself as a substitute for a visit to the doctor. Other attorneys have investigated LegalZoom specifically and have found it to be based on laws that were out of date; that some documents have been ineffective when customers went to actually use them; and that where the law got too nuanced to create a generic document, LegalZoom actually gave them incomplete or incorrect information rather than risk giving out legal advice.

Saving a few hundred dollars on drafting your will could cost your family hundreds or thousands more after you are gone. When documents fail, family members are likely to fight over your estate in court. Attorneys’ fees and court costs add up quickly, sometimes to many times what hiring an attorney would have cost.

To illustrate: Suppose a couple decides to save money and uses a do-it-yourself online form to write their wills. Unfortunately, they do not sign the documents correctly, rendering the wills ineffective at the time of their death. Their children can't agree on how to distribute the assets, so they go to court. Each of the children could spend hundreds or even thousands on attorneys' fees and court costs to resolve the conflict.

Clearly, the couple got what they paid for. Had the couple paid an attorney at the beginning for the customized, correctly signed documents, their children would not have needed to go to court to settle their differences. Hiring an attorney to customize your will and estate plan does not guarantee that your family will not end up fighting over your estate in court, but it does greatly reduce the likelihood that they will. Knowing you have done everything in your power to get documents that are specifically tailored to your needs will give you a peace of mind that cannot be duplicated by a generic form printed off the Internet.

If you want to try to draft your own will, you can. It’s not illegal to do so. But remember: You pay for what you get. And just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

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© 2013 - 2019 by Hilary J. Leitch/Leitch Law PLLC.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this website is provided "as-is,"' with no warranties or guarantees. This information should not be considered as actual legal, tax or investment advice and you should always contact a certified accountant, a tax professional, or an attorney before making any financial decisions. While every attempt has been made to provide current and accurate information, neither the author nor the publisher can be held accountable for any errors or omissions. The user is solely liable for any and all reliance, use, or action on this information.