orrison Law - Serving North San Diego and South-Western Riverside Counties (760) 724-9580

By Carl Morrison, Attorney at Law

The poor economy and just plain bargain shopping have many using online self-help legal services like LegalZoom for a variety of issues instead of visiting their local attorney. In some cases, that may be a reasonable decision. In fact, I periodically recommend LegalZoom or other online services and government websites when I receive calls for very routine matters.

In other cases, however, the savings and the adequacy of the finished product may come into question.

The online services also are coming under attack from several quarters.

Several years ago, I wrote an article comparing the cost of estate planning documents prepared using an online service to those prepared by an attorney. After totaling up the cost of the 12 or more documents in a standard estate planning package for a married couple, the savings of the online service were not nearly what the advertising suggests. A typical estate planning package includes a spousal property agreement, a living trust, two pour-over wills, two durable general powers of attorney, two advanced health care directives, two authorizations for use and disclosure of protected health information, and the grant deeds and related documents to transfer real estate to the trust.

Using estate planning again as an example, online services also are not really designed for the more complicated situations of many of today's families or for those who desire what we might call more "creative" provisions. I'm referring to complicated distribution provisions based on factors such as children from previous marriages, the need for a sprinkling trust for a child who is not responsible, has a drug or alcohol problem, or requires special needs, or something as simple as setting up provisions so an 18-year-old doesn't inherit his or her entire share all at once or is given incentives to receive his inheritance earlier. Another example would be the desire to leave a second wife a life estate in the home with a modest income until her death, and then the estate going to the children of the first wife. This not only requires special language in the trust, but also the recording of a special deed.

Additionally, don't forget the changes in the estate tax laws. Not only is there the issue of the estate tax exclusion reverting back to only $1 million and a tax rate of 55 percent, but there are also questions about the applicability of certain provisions referred to in estate planning documents because of the changes in the law.

Online services also don't provide the personal counsel that a "live" attorney provides. In my practice, I often find myself pointing out the downside or even unenforceability of a provision that a client believes should be included in his or her legal document.

In addition to the questionable savings, the inability to address very complicated issues, and the absence of an attorney who can give counsel and point out issues not previously considered, the self-help services are coming under attack from state bar associations, class actions and even customers of the services.

A recent article in "California Lawyer," a professional publication, addresses many of the attacks specifically directed at LegalZoom. Bar associations in several states have filed lawsuits and complaints with state consumer protection agencies claiming that the most popular online self-help legal services are engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. This claim seems to have even more validity when a LegalZoom non-attorney contacts a customer to get clarification of information provided online.

The most direct challenge to LegalZoom is a class action in Missouri claiming the unauthorized practice of law. It is seeking actual and punitive damages from LegalZoom for every customer in the state over the last 10 years.

It isn't just state bar associations and class actions that are suing LegalZoom; individual customers are suing as well. One suit claims legal malpractice in the preparation of a will that cost the customer $10,000 in legal fees to correct an error.

The bottom line is that online self-help services may be quite adequate for fairly simple matters. In others that are more complicated only an attorney will be able to draft the language to state the express desires of the client, as well as give legal counsel and the benefit of his or her experience. It also may be that the legal documents you get from the online service may not provide you what want or need, and may be very costly, if not impossible, to correct. To use a perhaps overused expression, you often get what you pay for.

Mr. Morrison practices law in Bonsall. He may be reached at (760) 724-9580.