D-I-Y legal services: One-size-fits-all may not fit you

We live in a do-it-yourself (DIY) world. HGTV, YouTube tutorials, and the opportunity to save big money at Menards inspire us to take on home improvement projects of every kind. On some projects things go smoothly, and when the work is finished we can enjoy a sense of pride in a job well done. However, on other projects we can quickly find ourselves in over our heads, wondering if we wouldn’t have been better off hiring a professional.

In the legal world, DIY services are increasing in popularity. Companies such as LegalZoom, NOLO, and Rocket Lawyer are competing fiercely with one another for the chance to draft Wills and Trusts, form new businesses, and assist with real estate transactions.

As a consumer, you would be wise to pause and consider the value of hiring an attorney before trying your luck with DIY legal services. Some people are drawn to DIY legal services as a way to save money. They think: “Why pay an attorney hundreds or thousands of dollars when you can get the same thing online for $49.99?” Unfortunately, the old adage, “you get what you pay for,” still rings true.

Take, for example, the mother who drafted her own Will giving her daughter her car, her house, and all her other real estate. However, the Will lacked a residue clause, which is the statement that directs where “everything else” goes that is not specifically listed in the Will. Who gets the large bank account and Certificate of Deposit, which are considered personal property, not real estate? Since the Will did not state who receives the remaining personal property, the intestate laws of North Dakota required the personal property to be distributed to the mother’s legal heirs, which included the daughter and also three grandchildren who were the children of her deceased son. The daughter made it clear she was not happy with this result. This is a prime example of $49.99 planning. I’ve seen variations of this issue numerous times, including cases dealing with valuable mineral rights.

When contemplating the value of DIY legal services versus the value of hiring an attorney, a wise consumer understands that you can’t compare apples with oranges. Virtually anyone can go online, type in their name and a few facts about their property, and minutes later print out a deed transferring farmland to their children. However, after they have done so, virtually no one can explain how the language in that deed meets their legal needs. Nor can they discuss the implications of the Medicaid rules and whether the deed ensures mom does not have to sell the farm if she moves into the nursing home. Further still are the income tax, gift tax, and estate tax consequences of the transfer. There is almost always something wrong with a DIY deed, and the attorney cleaning up the mess must determine if it is a minor mistake, requiring perhaps an affidavit or another deed to fix the problem, or a major mistake, requiring a probate, litigation, or other costly legal measures.

When you hire an attorney to assist you with a legal matter, you will also likely leave the office with one or more legal documents. However, the process of creating that document is completely different than the form-driven, one-size-fits-all process common with DIY legal services. When you hire an attorney, you can be confident that each and every document represents the independent legal judgment of an attorney who understands your goals and is committed to helping you accomplish them. The attorney will meet with you personally to fully understand your goals and concerns and ask questions about issues you may not have considered. The attorney will also likely be able to present you with several alternative options for accomplishing your goals, some of which may be cheaper than you would have expected and less complicated that the product generated for you by a DIY legal service. And finally, once you have decided on a course of action, the attorney will educate you and explain to you how the documents work together to accomplish your goals. Personalized advice is the most valuable aspect of hiring an attorney, and it is largely lacking if not altogether absent in DIY legal services.

In no way do I intend to discourage people from gathering information online that is relevant to their legal needs. The internet can be a useful resource to help identify questions to ask your attorney and to understand legal vocabulary. However, it is not the place to get answers to specific questions about your situation, many of which are driven by state-specific laws.

Just as a late-night Google search of “why does my stomach hurt?” cannot replace a head-to-toe assessment by your physician, online DIY legal services cannot replace the personalized legal advice an attorney can provide for your specific circumstances.

This article does not constitute legal advice. Each individual should consult his or her own attorney.


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