The Changing Face of Traditional Legal Services: eWills or the Last Will & Testament?

I remember a time when research projects involved books. My elementary and middle

school research consisted of going to the library and reading through all kinds of tangible medium: books, encyclopedias, periodicals. My mom bought us a set of World Book Encyclopedias that provided me with snippets of all kinds of information and proffered a springboard for my research (often leaving me with plenty of questions to ask the librarian the next day at school). These projects required me to look at a variety of sources to ensure that those I chose to cite provided credible information. This method of research also required that I not rely too heavily on one type of source or another, and if differences in information came up, it required me to question what sources I could trust. Fast forward to my law school experience, where, when asked to do a research project with a book, we all grumbled and complained about how inconvenient it was to do things in a way that, less than 20 years ago, was the norm.

Today we live in a world where nearly any type of information we seek is available to us at our fingertips. With the advent of companies like Google (founded in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin) and YouTube (launched on February 14, 2005 by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim), we have more ways than ever to learn everything from how to learn a new language, cook a gourmet meal, ace a job interview, build a deck, pick a lock, fix our plumbing, annoy a telemarketer, or prepare for a zombie apocalypse. In 0.65 seconds or less I can learn about the “10 Best Skills to Learn Online Today” or catch up on the latest news. Nearly 50% of the world’s population has access to the internet. There are 3.5 billion Google searches every day, equating to over 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide. More than 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Our society is not suffering from a shortage of access to information.

With all of this information available to us and the ability for nearly anyone to research anything they want, anytime they want, one question that remains relevant to my line of work is: “Why do I need an attorney if I can draft my estate planning documents on my own?”

There are numerous non-traditional legal services providers available. These companies provide a variety of legal services from document generators to limited consultation services with attorneys or specialists. These companies often offer limited services in areas such as estate planning and business entity formations, and often post articles on a variety of legal matters.

One of the advantages to utilizing a non-traditional legal services providers people most commonly latch onto is the cost: If I can draft my own will for the low, low price of $69, in as little as fifteen minutes, why would I pay a local attorney hundreds of dollars to draft it for me?

This is a fair question, but consider the following before utilizing one of these services:

It’s not just about a will…

An estate plan is a set of legal documents to prepare for your death or disability. A will is one of those documents, but other documents, such as a healthcare directive or power of attorney are just as, if not more important, than having a will.

It’s also important to consider how matters involving real estate, business interests, charitable bequests, and more intersect with your estate plan and what additional planning may be necessary to achieve your goals.

Working with an attorney may actually save you money…

When we sit down to create an estate plan with our clients, we’re looking at the big picture. We’re looking at what we can do to reduce or avoid estate taxes, provide for a surviving spouse and minor or disabled children, avoid probate or excessive court filing fees, and mitigate potential family feuds. An improperly executed estate plan can end up costing you more in attorney’s fees, court costs, and taxes than it would have to draft an effective plan with a knowledgeable attorney in the first place.

You probably wouldn’t perform brain surgery on yourself…

In Minnesota, attorneys are required to graduate from an accredited law school (which usually takes about 3 years of intensive study), sit for and pass the bar exam (a rigorous two-day, three-part exam), and keep up with continuing legal education credits. There are also ethical, legal, and professional standards of practice by which every licensed attorney must abide. The law is complex and changing all the time. It’s one thing to learn the rules, but quite another to apply those rules to a specific set of facts and keep up with the various updates.

You may be able to draft any document you want online for a low cost, but an attorney’s knowledge and experience about which document to draft, how that document (or plan) will result in the most efficient transfer of your assets in your situation, and how to avoid potential pitfalls and navigate the legal process are elements of value that only an attorney can provide. We can explain the benefits and drawbacks. We can explain process and the rules.

It’s not “if”, it’s “when”…

We’re never guaranteed a tomorrow. If a key requirement in your estate plan gets overlooked in a DIY estate plan and something happens to you, there is no do-over.

We typically recommend that our clients review their estate plans every five years or after a big life event or change. Working with an attorney can help you work through those changes, make sure the key elements of each document reflect your wishes, and when changes do come up, we can give advice on when and why it might be a good idea to update your documents. It's also helpful to develop a relationship with an attorney you trust, who understands your goals, and who already knows what your current estate plan looks like.

We have a plethora of online tools available to us, many of which improve and enhance our daily lives. Just as research has dramatically changed over the last few decades, expectations around what it means to be a legal services provider is beginning to change.

Non-traditional online legal service providers offer tools that, under the right circumstances, may be appropriate, and often offer information that can help you make a more informed decision when choosing an attorney. That being said, I encourage you to think twice before utilizing these services to complete your estate plan. There can be a lot at stake when preparing your estate plan and there is something to be said for being able to trust that your plan is being done correctly by a knowledgeable, local attorney.

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Categories: Estate Planning