Nothing. Both LegalZoom and RocketLawyer create great legal forms. They should; they have the resources to hire first-rate lawyers to draft them. But the estate planning (or corporate) document is just one product of any legal representation.
The form won’t:
- Advise you on how to fund a trust and help you do so.
- Discuss the pros and cons and various alternatives for transferring assets to achieve MassHealth eligibility.
- Explain why, for most people, the $15,000 limit on annual gifts is irrelevant.
- Counsel you on who to name personal representative on your will and agent on your durable power of attorney.
- Come up with a plan to keep your vacation house in the family.
- Refer you to a qualified and reliable financial planner, geriatric care manager, or accountant.
- Devise a plan to limit both estate and income taxes on your 401(k) or IRA.
- Create a structure to protect your child with special needs.
- Mediate a disagreement among your children over where you should live and what care you should receive if necessary when you get older.
What Lawyers Do
The list of what lawyers do and how they can help based on their knowledge of the law and experience working with clients on 100s of matters (or 1,000s for some of us older practitioners) can go on and on. This is why they are often called “counsellors” at law. While wills, trusts, durable powers of attorney, and other legal documents may seem like forms taken off the shelf that might be produced by a well-programmed computer, we should be aware of two significant facts about them. First, the right documents and the right terms in the documents will be the result of working with your attorney to determine how best to meet your goals. Second, changing even a few words in your legal documents can have a huge impact on their effect and whether they will help protect you and your family as you wish.
But What Should You Do?
So, should you devise an estate plan with the perfectly good forms you can create on LegalZoom or RocketLawyer, or should you go see a lawyer? Of course, the answer is: it all depends. LegalZoom and RocketLawyer are much less expensive than using an attorney and you can fill out their online forms in the comfort of your own home, even in your pajamas. If you have no complicating issues and are motivated to get your estate plan done on your own, go for it. Any plan is far better than no plan.
But if you have any complicating issues—second marriage, long-term care planning, child with special needs, vacation home, etc.—then meet with an attorney.
The problem for many people is that they’re not sure which category they fall in and are rightfully concerned that they don’t know what they don’t know. They’d rather avoid the cost and bother of sitting down with a lawyer, but are also not sure if the do-it-yourself programs are the answer. On the one side, they can’t ask the DIY programs their questions. On the other, they’re afraid that if they ask a lawyer, the billing clock won’t stop.
Calling a law office is a great way to find out how it would be to work with the attorney and get some idea of the cost. They may offer an initial consultation for no fee or a low fee which wouldn’t require a huge investment, and it would help you make a well-informed decision.
Lawyer for the Situation or for the Family
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