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Let's say someone is interested in a fairly simple will (simple financial picture with a house, mortgage, 2 bank accounts, 2 retirement accounts; no prior wills; simple family structure, nearly-bog-standard inheritance wishes); and a reasonably normal living will (largely based on standard one that can be found online in a state I live in).

There seems to be a rather large cost difference between doing them with a regular lawyer (I saw quotes of $500 for 2 documents); vs. an online service like LegalZoom.

Usually, it's prudent to assume that you get what you pay for, so it seems reasonable to worry that LegalZoom documents come with meaningful possible downsides.

Is that the case, and if so, what are the downsides to worry about?

Updates to clarify:

An answer was posted that seemed to answer a slightly different situation than what was asked, so I'd like to clarify:

  • The financial picture truly isn't complicated (no debts outside mortgage, no complicated assets outside house/checking/savings/401k accounts, all assets and family are in same state, assets are less than state/federal estate tax limit; no prior marriages or prior children or other potential liabilities, etc...).

  • People doing the will are reasonably intelligent, e.g. they are smart enough to realise specific people named in the will may already be not alive during probate and designate reasonable backups for both will executor and child guardianship etc...

  • The person getting the will is intelligent enough to know that if said picture changes in any way, the will DOES need to be updated, and can be relied on to do so (e.g. in case of a divorce, or if financial picture becomes less simple etc....). So "your internet made will is fine now but won't be in 40 years" is not really an applicable downside, assuming "fine now" is true of course.

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    (A slightly different question is, what are the upsides of going with a "real" lawyer, not sure if it should be asked in the same question or different one) – DVK Nov 11 '16 at 2:04
  • I'm also exploring these options. What have you decided and why? – Mike Eng May 8 at 20:58
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Living Wills

A "living will" which is a "pull the plug" document that isn't customized to an individual's preferences (probably 95%+ done by lawyers are not customized anyway) through a service like LegalZoom is probably fine, although doing it yourself you don't get the same guidance about how to use it in practice and are more likely to screw up the formal execution of the document (e.g. not having the proper witnesses and notary observe the execution, or signing in the wrong place, etc.).

But this document is usually prepared by a lawyer at little or no extra cost when you have your last will and testament done, so the cost of not screwing up the execution of it isn't great. And, lawyer drafted documents are less likely to be contested in practice, even when a non-lawyer on paper does everything right.

Someone who does their own living will also often doesn't realize the important of also having medical powers of attorney and durable powers of attorney for property which are also necessary.

Simple Wills

A "simple will" is quite another matter.

First, I've never met a layperson who doesn't think that they need no more than a "simple will" when in fact they often do, either because they are affluent, or have a blended family, or need testamentary trusts to manage property for children or young adults or black sheep or for tax purposes or because some family members are non-citizens. In general, a lot of the value of having a lawyer do the work comes from the lawyer's ability to spot issues that are exceptional and take you out of the "simple will" solution by itself. Often an issue spotted can result in larger monetary savings or a much smoother probate process. For example, a lawyer can identify cases where a probate proceeding in more than one state is likely to be required and suggest steps to avoid that expensive result.

Second, many non-lawyers have a very hard time thinking about all possibilities. They do fine thinking about what rules make sense if everybody alive today is still alive when you die and you own what you own now when you die, but have a very hard time thinking about what would be appropriate if people predecease them or if their assets change substantially. Lawyers are much better at working through what is sensible in all of these possibilities, many of which won't happen, but some of which will happen. This matters because a will never expires unless it is expressly revoked. I've probated wills drafted during WWII in basic training (as required) before the decedent went off to war and never amended over the next 60 years, and it is very hard to be that thoughtful when you are doing it yourself.

Third, it is very common for non-lawyers to use language that isn't obviously ambiguous or otherwise problematic until you are forced to apply it in practice. Estate planning lawyers are much more aware of these traps in the "moving parts" of an estate plan and of the possibilities that need to be provided for.

To give one example, suppose that you leave your second wife your house, and leave the remainder of your estate to your children (her stepchildren). It is very easy to say this in a way that does not make clear whether she takes the house subject to the mortgage, or if the mortgage is a debt to be paid before the remainder of the estate is distributed to the children.

Similar issues often come up in relation to tax elections and allocation of tax debts among heirs.

Providing for the disposition of pets is another thing that few non-lawyers manage to do well.

Lawyers, in contrast, generally draft in a manner that avoids these ambiguities and sets forth rules that are sensible, fair and will work in practice. The issues are even more fraught if businesses or investment real estate is involved.

And, non-lawyers (even sophisticated, affluent business people) routinely fail to grasp that a Will only governs assets which don't have beneficiary designations and is subject to forced marital share and minimum family inheritance laws that act by operation of law as well as other "gap filling" presumptions that modify the literal meaning of certain kinds of language in a Will.

Finally, screwing up the execution of a Will is very common, while lawyer drafted wills are much less likely to be contested.

In my twenty years of experience as a lawyer who does estate planning as part of his practice and teaches lawyers, financial planners and paralegals about the topic, I find that the increased litigation costs associated with a do it yourself will (on average) is about ten times as large as the savings associated with doing it yourself. Sure, one time in three or four or five, somebody does their own will and doesn't screw it up and it all goes fine, but a majority of the time, do it yourself will drafters do something that would be considered malpractice if a lawyer did it. Pay lawyers now, or pay lawyers more later.

Honestly, if all you need is a "simple will" and you are not willing to spend the $500-$2,000 to have a lawyer draft appropriate documents, and help you execute them, you are probably better off doing nothing at all and dying intestate (i.e. without a will so that the default provisions of the law apply), which often isn't a horrible result in a plain vanilla, unblended nuclear family that isn't particularly affluent.

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    First of all, you seem to be saying that LegalZoom is a "do it yourself" will. Is that a correct interpretation, and if so, is that actually accurate? (I'm not quite sure what the service they or their competitors offer actually entails). – DVK Nov 11 '16 at 10:30
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    Second of all, this is an amazingly thoughtful answer. On the other hand, it seems answering a slightly different question than what I asked - you keep saying "well, lawyer will is better if your situation isn't as simple as you say", but doesn't at all address the case that I ask about, where the situation literally IS as simple as one says - no debts outside mortgage, no prior spouses, no family members outside kids to contest the inheritance, no interstate assets, no assets with complex tax issues, etc... Also, sorry I wasn't clear, but implication is, will will update if situation changes – DVK Nov 11 '16 at 10:34
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    Even the situation you describe is not necessarily simple (or at least the facts that you recite are not enough to determine that). For example, if there are minor children and several hundred thousand or more of net worth, a testamentary trust would usually be preferred. And while everyone could update their will, people routinely don't even when they know that they should. Also, if retirement accounts are substantial there are planning steps that can greatly reduce income taxation on those assets if they are at least a couple hundred thousand that a simple will wouldn't address. – ohwilleke Nov 11 '16 at 13:41
  • LegalZoom is basically a form service with some instructions. – ohwilleke Nov 11 '16 at 13:43
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    No, this is a common misconception. Addressing income in respect of a decedent (e.g. from retirement accounts) and capital gains taxation is also very important considerations. For example, this situation looks like one were one often wants to do a "stretch IRA" which maximize the tax benefits of retirement assets. There would also be planning for Medicaid estate recovery which is often implicated in medium sized estates is a nursing home is needed and there is no long term care insurance. – ohwilleke Nov 11 '16 at 13:58
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If you can be sure that nobody (grasping bureaucrat, beneficiary who was expecting more than is actually there, vengeful ex-wife who would rather He got nothing than they both got something) can tie the will up in court, then by all means save the money. Certainly the vast majority of wills are simple enough to go through 'on the nod'.

On the other hand; there are cases every year where the estate is tied up for years and only the lawyers profit, and the vast majority of them were started when somebody thought "it's not worth spending the money to tie it all up carefully". There is a saying round the probate court in London: "Testators in person buy the barristers' champagne".

Overall, I would consider the fee for drawing a will (assuming your lawyer is both honest and competent) as an insurance policy. Very probably you will get no benefit from it, but it could save your family much time and money (not to mention grief and ill-will).

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    You personally are guaranteed to get no benefit from any will that you draft. You're dead when it comes into effect. It matters a lot to those who survive you, but it is not your problem 100% of the time. – ohwilleke Oct 30 '17 at 20:26

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