There are many legal websites and boxed software products available today for roughly $50-$100 that offer consumers quick “solutions” to their every legal need, whether drafting a will, incorporating a business, forming an LLC, or even handling an uncontested divorce. Sometimes these at-home do-it-yourself solutions, such as LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer, are okay, and better than nothing, but often they create huge problems. They all carry a disclaimer that the product is not legal advice and one should consult an attorney. As an attorney of 37 years, it is rare when a client believes that their personal situation is anything but simple, when more times than not, the client’s situation is complex or the appropriate solution is complicated.
Every person’s situation is different, and your situation may require more complex documents than these particular software programs can provide. It sounds self-serving for traditional attorneys to advise consumers to stay away from these options, but even educated people often have no idea what the documents are saying or what they mean, so they don’t actually know whether they are appropriate for their personal situation.
While do-it-yourself legal documents will not be the best option for consumers, it may be better to have a valid legal document that partially does what you want than no document at all. Even bad documents can be helpful to people at times. If you must use a legal-do-it yourself option rather than seek the help of a traditional attorney who can tailor your documents to your specific needs, be sure that your do-it yourself documents are completely filled in and executed (signed) correctly with witnesses and a notary. If you’re going to use a do-it-yourself legal service, you MUST read the directions. Oftentimes, people do not fill out the forms correctly, so the documents that they need are executed improperly and are subsequently invalid. Legal documents must be executed in a very specific way with the right words in the right places. Most people do not understand what their documents mean because they are written in legalese, which makes the language hard to interpret. If you do not execute your documents properly, then you will end up with meaningless papers that do not serve their intended purpose. The problem with these do-it-yourself documents is that you often do not know if they are lacking in some way and therefore can’t tell when they won’t work. Even in a best-case scenario where someone properly reads the directions and executes his or her documents correctly (requiring two independent witnesses, a notary, and a form that meets all statutory requirements), that person will STILL only have one-size-fits all documents that are not tailored to his or her individual needs. You may even understand what the document says, but you will never know what is being left out of the document that might be important to you. The biggest problem with “lawyer in a box” documents is that they lull their victims into a false sense of security—“we’ve got it covered.” More often than not, the “do-it-yourself” documents we review are rarely filled in completely or executed properly, and are frequently invalid.
In our practice, it does not matter how unique the situation is – people always think that their situation is simple. The reality is that the majority of people need more than simple documents, but they do not know what exactly they need or how complex their needs are until they meet and speak with an experienced Elder Law attorney. One advantage of visiting a traditional attorney is benefitting from the advice that you receive during your visit, which is often what you are really paying for—the advice rather than the documents. Properly prepared documents will be drafted with your personal situation in mind and be consistent with an appropriate estate plan for you and your loved ones. Good documents help you with life issues as well as death issues.
Any parent with young children should not have legal documents created out of a box, as most parents want to be able to leave specific written instructions in the event that they both die at the same time. Parents want to share what they want for their children in the event of this type of catastrophe, direct who they want them to live with and who they want to manage their finances. While leaving these instructions is difficult, the alternative is the child receiving all of his or her money when they reach the age of eighteen (the age of majority). We know that an eighteen year old should not receive a large sum of money, so creating a trust instead protects the child’s money until such an age as he or she is old enough to manage it responsibly.
Another good example of a group of people who may not benefit from do-it-yourself documents are those without close family members. Even if a simple Will works for a single person without any living relatives, determining whom to appoint as his or her agent, or how to deal with pets, or what persons or charities are deserving of the gift may be more complicated in this situation.
If you don’t have the correct documents in place and can’t handle your own affairs, then you may end up in court where a judge will appoint someone as your guardian to manage things for you. This person may or may not know your situation, and overall, the process will be expensive and time consuming.
Finally, do-it-yourself legal documents will not be right for the elderly, as seniors require unique documents that differ from those needed by younger people. It is important for seniors to go to an attorney who is experienced with elder law issues, as these attorneys will draft their elderly clients’ documents with specific legal issues in mind that only apply to this particular age group. These special documents are what allow attorneys to provide asset-protection from creditors and predators as well as obtain government assistance for clients.
Be sure to contact an experienced Elder Law professional today to give you sound advice and good documents that are uniquely tailored to you – it is better to spend the money now than be unsure whether your documents will work when the time comes that they are needed! Contact W.G. Alexander & Associates today for an appointment.
Attorney Bill Alexander discussed these issues and more this past Tuesday on W.G. Alexander & Associates’ radio program, “Asset Protection Today,” on TalkRadio 850 WPTK (AM). Be sure to listen every Tuesday morning from 9:00-10:00 AM. To listen to this week’s show, please visit WPTF’s on demand show blog by clicking here.