A question I routinely receive from clients, family and friends is whether writing your own Will, using LegalZoom, or using an online form a safe alternative to using a law firm. My answer may seem biased as someone using one of these options is going to result in that person not hiring me for their legal needs.
Although I am biased in this regard, this is also based upon my experience in the probate litigation context and seeing what happens when a plan is not set up correctly for the surviving family who are left behind.
Now, the question you should ask yourself is whether going in the direction of not using a law firm will serve your needs or not. First, LegalZoom and other online Will creating services are not law firms. If you read their Terms of Service, you are declaring in your purchase that you are representing yourself. This means that if your answers are not complete, you make a mistake and your family suffers harm after your death with your Will and Estate Plan not working according to plan, your family will have no legal recourse against the online service you utilized for your Will and Estate Plan.
Understand your Will and Estate Plan needs
Does this mean that online Will creation software is not going to suit your needs for you and your family? It may be perfect for your family or it may be wrong for your family. However, what these disclaimers make clear is that if you use an online service/software, use an online form creation service or write your Will yourself, you are representing yourself. The online creation service will only work based upon your understanding and the completeness of your answers that you provide. Further, if you do something incorrectly and you suffer harm, you have no legal recourse against the company you used.
The reason for this is that whether you use an online service, use an online form or write your own Will, you are representing yourself and if you do not complete your Will and Estate Plan correctly under law, your family has no legal recourse. The main problem with proceeding in this way for your Will and Estate Plan is that it assumes that you understand the law and know what you are doing.
By way of illustration, the Ohio Trust Code, including all the comments and commentaries, is a total of 586 pages. In addition, the Ohio Probate Code totals 1,413 pages. Many people are not familiar with the nearly 2,000 pages which encompasses the Ohio Probate Code and the Ohio Trust code, in addition to the 51 volumes of the Ohio Revised Code which may impact estate planning. Your estate plan may also impact tax law, family law, real estate law and business law, just to name a few.
The benefits of using a law firm
A benefit to using a law firm is that you can rely upon an attorney’s expertise in advising you on the various options for you and your family, with the assurance that the work was completed correctly and accurately. Further, if the work was not completed correctly, your family would have legal recourse against the law firm. As stated above, this is not the case when you use an online service or software for your Will and Estate Plan.
In 2014, a case was decided by the Florida Supreme Court in the case of Aldrich v. Basile, which highlights this exact point and cautions the use of these online forms and Will creation software. In the opinion, Justice Pariente made the following statement:
“The unfortunate result stems not from this Court’s interpretation of Florida’s probate law but from the fact that Ms. Aldrich wrote her will using a commercially available form, an E-Z Legal Form, which did not adequately address her specific needs – apparently without obtaining any legal assistance. This form, which is in the record, did not have space to include a residuary clause or pre-printed language that would allow a testator to elect to use such a clause.”
Justice Pariente went on to state in the option that this case serves “[t]o highlight a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance. As this case illustrates, the decision can ultimately result in the frustration of the testator’s intent, in addition to the payment of excessive attorney’s fees – the precise results the testator sought to avoid in the first place.”
Will an online service, software or preprinted form work for you and your family when it comes to your Estate Planning? It may or may not work for your family. However, as the Basile case highlights, using an online form or service to save on attorney’s fees can easily have the unintended effect of costing tens of thousands of dollars more in legal fees than you intended.
For more information
As you can see, there are many ways in which mistakes can be made in the Estate Planning process when you represent yourself. For this reason, we always recommend that you speak with a knowledgeable and experienced Trusts and Estates attorney regarding the estate planning process.
If you have questions about Estate Planning, please contact our office at (513) 241-0400 or use our contact form to schedule a time to discuss how we can help you and your family.
The attorneys at Aronoff, Rosen & Hunt, LPA are here to help you!