Web-based tools for estate planning are cheaper, but the real cost might come later.
Web-based services like LegalZoom and RocketLawyer are now part of a $5 billion industry that's growing at nearly 8 percent a year.
How much of that growth derives from online wills is hard to say, but lawyers and financial planners see an increasing trend toward online estate planning, even if it doesn't threaten their business today.
“I believe a lot of people are at least going to the websites initially and taking a look at them, whether it's LegalZoom or any of the other sites that provide documents. But (the sites) also say they are not in the business of practicing law,” says Thomas Bonasera, a partner in Dinsmore's Columbus law office.
David Swift, a partner at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, says recent surveys have found that 50 percent to 60 percent of Americans don't have wills or estate planning documents in place.
“In terms of trying to bridge that gap and providing some type of estate planning documents for people who feel they can't afford them, these services provide a benefit and have some kind of a role to play,” he says.
At first, online services just updated old-fashioned handwritten or self-typed wills. “Attorneys haven't minded that because those kinds of documents generate a lot of legal work,” Swift says. “The same thing is ultimately happening with all the online products. They open up a lot of problems that can result in litigation.”
Online legal services frequently miss the mark by emphasizing free or low-cost documents over the need for service and advice, says Roy Krall of Cavitch Davilo & Durkin, who chairs the Ohio State Bar Association's section on estate planning, trust and probate law.
“Do I need a will, do I need a trust, do I need a power of attorney, do I need beneficiary designations? All of these forms can be provided (online), but it would be like going to the store and buying a scalpel to perform surgery on yourself,” Krall says.
“If there's anything to be saved at all in the creation of the document, often it does not effectively express an individual's true intent, or it's executed improperly or there's some other problem that leads to it being contested. It's going to cost many many, times (the original price) if it has to be litigated and it's contested. I've seen these things sort of blow up into litigation.”
Phillip Lilly of Columbus-based Becker & Lilly agrees. “I was kind of disappointed when LegalZoom came here that we didn't fight them any harder than they did,” he says.
Lilly also points out that if documents are the only items needed, people can get them free from other sources. Standard Ohio forms for living wills, healthcare power of attorney and donor registry, for instance, are available at LeadingAge Ohio (leadingageohio.org), a nonprofit long-term care advocacy group.
Nonetheless, online estate planning services are here to stay. Here's a quick intro:
LegalZoom (legalzoom.com) carries a prominent disclaimer: “We are not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. We cannot provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion or recommendation about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.” But LegalZoom does provide documents—lots of documents—including bundles: A Last Will and Testament Bundle for one is $149, while a Living Trust Bundle for one is $299. Bundles for two people are $249 and $349, respectively, and each bundle includes consultation with an attorney. LegalZoom acknowledges personal legal advice is usually necessary before a customer can decide which document to use.
RocketLawyer's slogan is “Affordable Legal Services, Free Legal Documents,” and it promises that customers will “Get Legal Advice from Real Lawyers in Minutes.” The RocketLawyer website (RocketLawyer.com) offers documents, worksheets, referrals to attorneys and instructional articles to help the do-it-yourself estate planner. Its disclaimer cautions: “RocketLawyer is not a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice.” The site offers a subscription service at $39 to $49 per month or $400 to $500 per year, depending on your needs as a consumer or business owner. Online lawyers can answer some legal questions, and you get unlimited access to documents, plus unlimited cloud storage for them.
Nolo.com prominently features a search for lawyers by state and area of expertise, including dozens in Ohio. But there is only a handful of estate planning specialists locally.
Nolo.com's best seller is Quicken Willmaker Plus ($54.95, also available on Amazon), and its Online Living Trust costs $59.99. Unfortunately, prices for most items on Nolo.com don't appear until you click the “Buy Now” button and put the item in your shopping cart. Nolo.com's disclaimer says it “does not constitute a lawyer referral service,” even though some states might classify it as attorney referral activity. Lawyers on the site are not hired consultants, but the result of “paid attorney advertising,” part of the business model.
LawDepot (lawdepot.com) offers a free one-week trial for access to documents, with a subscription option of $33 per month or $95.88 per year, allowing you to create and print all the legal documents you want. Customers seeking individual documents can pay à la carte pricing of $7.50 to $49.95 per document instead, but finding prices for documents isn't easy. LawDepot offers some customer assistance, but it more closely resembles an online help desk instead of an online attorney ready to hold your hand, like LegalZoom. LawDepot's inexpensive documents—not referrals or advice—are its selling point.
At least one website, DirectLaw(directlaw.com), helps lawyers add online documents to their own services. It's all part of the changing legal delivery system, a revolution driven by easy internet access to documents, sophisticated algorithms for customization and intense cost-based competition for customers.
There are plenty of other online players in the estate planning space, including USLegal, MegaDox, PublicLegal, LegalDocs, The EasyForms and Standard Legal. Googling along, consumers may find reviews and ratings on sites such as Top Ten Reviews and NextAdvisor.
Unfortunately, the most recent Consumer Reports roundup on online legal services dates back to 2012, and prices and products have changed significantly since then. Consumers should take more recent online reviews and evaluations with a grain of salt, because some are paid content or supported by advertising from the services they evaluate.
There's a long list of potential mistakes associated with online estate planning, the American Bar Association reports. Online legal documents might not speak to the needs of minor children or those with special needs, or they might ignore the rights of same-sex couples. They might not take into account other complications, such as newborn family members, deaths, marriages and divorces.
“These documents really only make sense in simple types of will and trust situations, and therein lies the problem. What is a simple situation, and who decides whether a situation is simple?” asks Swift of Vorys. “In today's world, there are a lot of second marriages and blended families, and those types of situations almost always require something that is not in a standard or vanilla estate planning document.”
Business owners will find it particularly hard to use any online form, he says. “You've got to worry about who's going to run the business afterward. You've got succession planning. The choice of executor and trustee requires a lot of thought there. When you have multiple children, who's going to get control of the business? Are you going to have children own it equally, and does that make sense?”
To financial planners and wealth managers, the online services can fall short of professional legal help, says Kathleen Lach, senior vice president of wealth management for UBS Financial Services' Columbus office. “Estate planning can include discussions on wealth transfers to heirs and charities, guardianship, powers of attorney, living wills, and trusts where you really need a professional involved. Knowing when and how to implement these strategies is where a professional touch may be helpful.”
Krall says people without complex estates or high net worth might need a lawyer, too. “A big part of the estate plan is not even expressed in wills and trusts. Much of the estate planning is transmitted through 401(k)s and IRAs, which are done through beneficiary designations and not through wills and trusts.”
To Joseph Chornyak Sr., managing partner of Chornyak & Associates financial planning consultants, the worst gamble in relying on online documents is their potential to create long-term risks for families that might not surface until the reading of the will.
“You may save money in the short run, but I do not think you will know if you have actually accomplished what you intended,” he says. “That is a high cost to pay.”
Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.