Why pay for a lawyer? Can’t I do it myself online?

When I speak on the topic of estate planning, I am frequently asked why someone should hire a lawyer to prepare an estate plan. “Why can’t I just do it online through someone like LegalZoom for a lot less money?” In my mind, this is a bit like trying to perform your own dental filling to save money on going to a dentist. Of course, as with the dental example, the answer is that you certainly can go the DIY route and, potentially, save yourself some money. But performing DIY legal services comes at a drastically increased risk, not really to you, the “DIY lawyer,” but to your loved ones who have to clean up your botched work after you pass.

Stories abound about people who try a DIY will solution, smugly thinking they put their affairs in order for cheap. Only after their death does their family learn that, in fact, what the “DIY lawyer” has done is create a colossal mess. Take, for instance, the case of  Ronald Ferree, formerly of Rumson, New Jersey. Mr. Ferree bought a form will, which had some pre-printed language with blanks for him to fill in his own details. He took the will home, filled it out, signed it, and — thinking he had properly laid out his estate planning wishes — took his own life. The person named in that document to receive his property sued Mr. Ferree’s family over the validity of the document. Everyone got to spend tens of thousands of dollars and many years with Mr. Ferree’s cost-saving attempt at a will running through the New Jersey court system. In the end, the document was declared invalid and Mr. Ferree’s family received his money, rather than the person named in his self-help will. See In re Will of Ferree, 848 A.2d 81 (N.J. Ch. Div. 2003).

I’ve also heard rumors of people leaving money to “{Insert name here},” or leaving “$200.000” to a loved one. Now, is that really two-hundred dollars and not even a tenth of a cent? Or was it maybe meant to be $200,000? I smell a lawsuit. I’ve also heard of people who say they don’t need a will because they have a DIY trust. The problem is that, without a will, anything that didn’t make it into the trust during the person’s lifetime won’t make it into the trust at death, rendering the trust a big waste of money.

These horror stories, of course, highlight the fact that, when you pay someone for a DIY form will or other estate planning document, you are buying the document. When you pay an attorney to prepare an estate plan, you are paying for advice and expertise — the documents are merely the end product of a much more involved process.

One other side note — if you hire a licensed and insured attorney to prepare your estate plan, and that attorney screws up, your survivors have a recourse in the form of your lawyer’s malpractice insurance. If you use a DIY will service, your survivors generally have no protection — they are left to foot the bill for any damages caused by your mistakes. More on this in the next post.


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