Internet Resources for Estate Planning

CHEAPEST IS NOT ALWAYS BEST

There are many online websites that offer you estate planning documents.  They will sell you everything from a power of attorney to a will or a trust.  They mainly advertise themselves as being cheaper than an attorney.

One of the companies that advertizes heavily is LegalZoom.  LegalZoom advertises itself as a cheaper alternative to an attorney. Many people go without professional advice because they are lured by the lower costs and believe the documents LegalZoom creates will be just as effective as ones created by a Texas attorney. Having heard so much about LegalZoom, I decided recently to visit its website.

At first glance, the LegalZoom site looked like it provided state-specific advice regarding Texas wills.  And had I not been a Texas lawyer with years of experience in estate planning, I might have thought that the site was providing me with accurate and current information that any Texas citizen could rely upon.

As soon as I started reading LegalZoom’s website information, a couple of glaring mistakes became obvious.  They likely would not have been obvious to anyone but an estate planning attorney, but if LegalZoom says that they know Texas law, the information should have been correct.

Estate planning laws change, just like other laws.  Texas’ legislature meets every-other year (in odd numbered years) and every time that they meet, they revise the estate planning laws.  Also, when cases are decided, new “case law” is developed.  Keeping up with both case law and legislative changes is one of the most important things that an attorney has to do.

It appears that LegalZoom does not revisit Texas’ laws to stay current with the changes that the courts and legislature have made. If they did, the errors on their website would not exist and they would not be providing misinformation to the public.

As an example, LegalZoom’s website made a statement about oral wills that is incorrect. According to LegalZoom, Texas recognizes oral wills.  Apparently, LegalZoom unaware that effective September 1, 2007, the Texas legislature repealed Sections 64 and 65 of the Texas Probate Code, which had authorized oral wills.  Under the current state of the law, Texas will not recognize an oral will unless it was made before September 1, 2007, and even then, only in very limited circumstances.

Is this a big deal?  Yes.  If your grandmother on her deathbed said, “I want my favorite granddaughter to have everything that I own”, you’d want to know whether that oral will is effective!

LegalZoom also has a subheading on their webpage, “Providing for Pets.” LegalZoom stated the following: “Texas law currently does not have specific statutes pertaining to providing care for pets.  However, the testator may specify a beneficiary as the new owner of the pet.”

LegalZoom is apparently also not aware that effective January 1, 2006, Texas enacted Section 112.037 of the Property Code which authorizes statutory pet trusts. This means that even though five (5) years have passed since the statute was enacted, LegalZoom is still not aware of this change in Texas law.

Furthermore, even before statutory pet trusts were authorized, it was still possible for a pet owner to create a traditional trust to provide for a pet. A traditional trust provides for pet care indirectly by instructing a trustee to cover expenses incurred by the pet’s caretaker, the actual beneficiary of a trust, as long as the pet is cared for properly. Nowhere does LegalZoom mention this and it has been the law in Texas for many, many years.  Is this important?  Yes!  There are many pet lovers in Texas and they want to know what options are available to care for their pets should something happen to the owner.

There is an expression, “The Devil is in the details.”  That is nowhere more applicable than in estate planning, as details drive your documents.  If LegalZoom can’t get details about Texas law correct, why should you rely upon them to get your estate planning documents correct?

Now you may be thinking that I am blowing these little mistakes a bit out of proportion. After all, one of them concerned pets. And no one would ever use LegalZoom to make an oral will, so that is arguably a harmless error.

But if LegalZoom is not current on laws about these two issues, what else has it missed? How can anyone who uses LegalZoom trust that the legal document he or she creates will do what it is supposed to do?  I found two glaring errors in a very cursory review of LegalZoom’s website.  How many more errors exist there?  There are no “Internet police” to make sure that companies based on the Internet are providing good service or accurate information.  I believe that you are better off with a Texas-based law firm, offering you Texas-based legal advice!

While we are on that topic, you should know that LegalZoom does not provide legal advice.  LegalZoom does not even purport to give legal advice. In fact, LegalZoom specifically states that in its website disclaimer.

Summarizing LegalZoom’s own disclaimer:

1.      The employees of LegalZoom are not acting as your attorney.

2.      LegalZoom’s legal document service is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.

3.      LegalZoom does not review your answers for legal sufficiency, draw legal conclusions, provide legal advice or apply the law to the facts of your particular situation.

4.      The legal information on LegalZoom’s website is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date.

Do-it-yourself estate planning is risky.  Do you really want to go there?

The problem is that the documents LegalZoom creates could be completely ineffective.  People who use LegalZoom and other do-it-yourself estate planning kits end up with a false sense of security. They create documents that they believe will address their estate planning needs. But with estate planning documents, they are unlikely to discover their mistakes.

Why?  Because the mistakes will not become evident until after they become incapacitated or die. And the people who will be left to deal with the mistakes are usually the people the documents were supposed to protect.  I have handles several recent estates that were unbelievably complicated because the decedent either got a “will kit” at a local bookstore or got a Last Will and Testament off of the Internet.  The Wills in each case did not meet Texas’ requirements for a valid Last Will and Testament.  The cost of the “kit” and Internet Will was around $75.00.  Because of the invalidity issues, the probate costs tripled, costing the family thousands of dollars.  The only person who made money on this little endeavor was the lawyer.  The family could have saved themselves a lot of money, just by making an appointment with a qualified Texas attorney.

You and your loved-ones deserve the advice of a lawyer who considers the facts of your particular situation.  You deserve legal advice that is correct, complete, and up-to-date. You deserve quality legal services at a fair price.  That’s what Buckner & Cross, L.L.P. offers.

LegalZoom, by its own admission, does not provide these things.

The bottom line:

The money you save now could be spent many times over after you die to address legal issues about which you were not even aware.

Attorneys don’t simply fill in forms. Rather, we use the knowledge we have acquired during our many years of schooling and practice to advise you on the best way to protect your family, and preserve and distribute your assets in the manner you choose.

You and your loved ones deserve full-service instead of “drive-through” lawyering.  We will help you achieve your goals and protect your family!

This article is not intended to be legal advice and is not a substitute for legal representation by an attorney. You are encouraged to seek the advice of your own attorney to answer any specific legal questions you may have.