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Should You Use a Lawyer or LegalZoom for Your Estate Plan?

While the goals of attorneys and their clients are supposed to be aligned, often they are not—or at least not completely. I’ve been thinking about what this means in the field of estate planning and how we can better serve our clients.To lay the groundwork, here are the premises I’m working with:

  • Estate planning is seen as a necessary chore by most clients.
  • Many don’t even see it as necessary since they are young and hope to not die or become disabled for many decades.
  • Many clients are reluctant to engage with lawyers because they are expensive and may make a simple situation complicated.
  • Because lawyers usually work on their own or in small firms, they are relatively inefficient. They do not have the resources to automate the practice of estate planning to the extent other industries have been able to do.
  • Some clients have estates and family situations for which estate plans can be simple and “off-the-shelf” while others have more complex situations or goals that require specially-tailored plans. It’s hard to determine which group clients fall into without sitting down with them.
  • Some clients would prefer to do as much as possible themselves in their own time, perhaps privately in front of their own computer. Others would prefer to have someone else take care of everything for them.
  • The legal profession is being pressed to some extent by lower-cost alternatives such as LegalZoom.
  • Virtually everyone should have the following five legal documents in this order of importance:
  1. Health care proxy
  2. Durable power of attorney
  3. HIPAA release
  4. Will
  5. Revocable trust

While clients and prospective clients come from all sides of the spectrum in terms of how they would like to be represented and the type of estate plan they need, our firm, like most law firms, is best equipped to handle clients with more complex legal needs who require individually-tailored legal solutions. While we are always working to be as efficient as possible, we are not the lowest-cost option for people who simply need to get their estate planning documents in place and whose situation presents no unusual circumstances. I have set myself the task of figuring out how to provide a high-level estate planning experience at a lower cost for these clients.

One of the threshold issues is, how do clients determine which group you fall into — whether you can use an off-the-shelf solution or you need something tailored to your unique situation. One approach is to list the situations and goals that would require something more complicated and a more in-depth discussion with an estate planning attorney. If you do not check off any of the items on the list, then you will probably do well with more “plain vanilla” estate planning documents. If you check off one or more items on the list, then the best place to start is a meeting with an attorney. Here’s the list:

  • Long-term care. Are you concerned about planning for the costs of long-term care? If you are too young for this to be a major concern at this point, have enough resources to self finance, or have long-term care insurance, then this should not be an issue for you.
  • Estate taxes. If your total estate is over $5 million or you anticipate that it will grow to this level, then get thee to an attorney because your estate may pay federal taxes. However, your estate only needs to be over $1 million for it to pay a Massachusetts estate tax. While this is at a much lower rate than the federal estate tax, planning will typically save your heirs between $50,000 and $100,000. If you would like to achieve this savings for them, check the box.
  • Special needs. Do you have a child, grandchild or spouse with special needs for whom you would like to provide a structure to manage what you leave them and permit them to qualify for public benefits?
  • Asset protection. Would you like to protect your assets from the claims either of your own prospective creditors or those of your children and grandchildren?  Would you like to protect your savings in the event of divorce—yours or that of your children and grandchildren?
  • Second marriage. If you are in a second marriage or relationship, it’s especially important that your estate plan take this into account and balance the needs of your first family and your newer relationship.
  • Second home. Planning for a vacation home that you would like to keep in the family or for property in another state can save your family a lot of money and trouble.
  • Business or business property. Do you own rental property or have a family-owned business? If so, you will need to consider succession planning and what you would like to happen when you can no longer manage these businesses.

This is not an exhaustive list, but if you have checked off one or more of the items, let’s talk. If you have not, LegalZoom or one of its competitors may be a good solution for you. Or send me an email. We are working on a more efficient estate planning system for clients who need a plan, but don’t need anything complicated. We’ll let you know when our new system is up and running. Unlike the DIY sites, our solution will include attorney review to answer questions and to make sure what you’re doing is right for you.

Margolis & Bloom, LLP, practices estate, long-term care and special needs planning in Boston, Norwood, and Wellesley with a strong commitment to client service.  If you have questions about these or other legal matters, do not hesitate to call us at 781-705-6400. 

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