Legal Zoom – Good and Bad

I was listening to the Dan Patrick show this morning on Fox Sports Radio. He went to a commercial break where he read the commercial. It was for Legal Zoom.  For those of you who don’t know, is a website that will draft simple legal documents for you for fees that are typically much cheaper than lawyers like me.  I then flipped over to ESPN Radio and guess what… similar commercial being read on there.  I see adds on TV, bus benches, magazines, and on and on it goes.  Obviously Legal Zoom’s marketing budget is a little bigger than mine, eh!?  I felt frustrated that companies like Legal Zoom mis-represent things and the American consumer buys into it. Let me start by saying that I am not telling you that you can’t get decent legal documents from Legal Zoom. I am mearly saying if you are getting a $49 will it is caviat emptor in my opinion… buyer beware!  Or, to remember what my mom (and your mom too) used to always say, “if it seems to be good to be true….”

Let’s start with the first major problem with Legal Zoom… it’s primary spokemen, and partial owner I believe, is Robert Shapiro.  Mr. Shapiro is a well respected lawyer who got his name for being involved in the OJ Simpson defense. He was a well respected lawyer before that, of course, and I believe he was a very minor piece of Team OJ, but that’s his real claim to fame. Without OJ most of us would not know who Robert Shapiro is. Ok, so let’s assume Robert Shapiro is an excellent criminal defense attorney.  Does that mean he knows anything about wills and trusts? Or incorporations? Or anything else they do at Legal Zoom?  Furthermore, do you really think there is any chance, on earth, that Mr. Shapiro is sitting in an office reviewing YOUR case? Let me say here, at the risk of offending someone, if you think Robert Shapiro is going to have any direct involvement with your case please do NOT contact me to be your attorney. Yes, really.

Ok, so most of you agree (or at least anybody still reading) that Robert Shapiro is not going to personally review your case and write your will. Do you think the Zoom has a team of other top notch lawyers like Robert Shapiro reviewing cases?  I won’t be quite as strong as above but let me say it is HIGHLY unlikely that an experienced lawyer is reviewing your $49 will. Do the math.  We thus are left with the conclusion that whatever lawyer is looking at your will is likely very inexperienced and likely reviewing about 50 or 60 wills an hour. That is not an exaggeration. He probably is very good at reviewing simple wills.  Thus if your situation is really simple maybe having the Zoom write your will is for you!

However, how do you know if your case is really simple until you talk to an attorney that really knows this area of law?  How do you know about all the options for what can be in a will, or trust, until you talk one-on-one with an experienced attorney?  Obviously, what I bring to the table is something that can not be simply duplicated for your $49 will at the Zoom.

Let’s back up a little bit.  We agree Robert Shapiro is not writing your will. We also, likely agree, that another attorney with Robert Shapiro’s experience is probably not reviewing your will.  We also, hopefully agree, that a computer program or phone operator can not possibly ask the right questions AND distill what the right follow up questions are as can an experienced estate planning attorney. Then what….

Well, I probated a Legal Zoom will last year. It was probated in Placer County, California.  A gentleman, who we will call Wally, resided at Sun City Lincoln Hills. Wally wanted a will. Wally contacted the Zoom and had them prepare a will to meet Wally’s wishes.  In my opinion it was an extremely poorly drafted will.  Among other oddities, it set up a continuing trust, for a small estate, for a retired beneficiary who is a successful businessman after a career in law enforecement. Hmmmmmm, that doesn’t sound like a good time for a continuing trust but that’s how the Zoom set it up. Ok, it is what it is.  However, how did the execution of that will go? Was it signed correctly?

There was a major problem in the execution of the will.  I will assume the Zoom sent instructions on how to sign the will properly, with two witnesses, yada, yada, yada. However, it was not executed properly by Wally. The lack of proper execution could have been fatal to that will if anybody had contested it. The fact is this will could have easily been contested as Wally had two kids who he was disinheriting and he left his estate to someone else. That is a ripe situation for a contest. Luckily it was not contested. If that will had been contested by Wally’s kids it is my opinion they could have easily invalidated the will drafted by the Zoom. Then that $49 would have really been a waste, eh!?

I could go on but if you are still reading you understand the bottom line… just hire an attorney and get your estate plan done right!

P.S. Ok, ok, the above reads like a conclusion but I do have a P.S. for you. I should clarify that I think Legal Zoom can be a great resource for people. No, I am not saying that because I don’t want Robert Shapiro to sue me. Rather I say that because there are situations where Legal Zoom can help you. For example, if you just can’t afford an experienced estate planning attorney I think a $49 will, from Legal Zoom, is probably better than having no will at all.  Plus, they have a California State Bar approved laywer referral service where they will refer you to attorneys that they have pre-screened.  That’s great!   My real point is that be careful about signing up for the $49 will or similar discount legal services. Make sure you do your homework and work directly with a qualified attorney!

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