Amy & Dan Smith's Planning for Life: Do It Yourself Legal Products Bargain or Trap?

The proliferation of online vendors offering legal documents and services for fixed fees is causing a real stir in the legal community. On the one hand there can be no question that the pricing of legal services puts personalized legal counsel out of reach for many people. On the other hand, most legal problems do not lend themselves to over-the-counter solutions.

The North Carolina State Bar Association tried to close down LegalZoom charging it with the unauthorized practice of law. A court order reversed the action. In the meantime, Rocket Lawyer, a competitor to LegalZoom, is teaming with the American Bar Association to offer legal advice to small businesses. The Virginia State Bar is carefully reviewing the situation in Virginia.

The Virginia State Corporation Commission provides forms for all the basic business entities online for your use. Go to www.scc.virginia.gov/clk and click on “Forms and Fees.” You can file to create a limited liability company or corporation immediately by clicking on “SCC eFile” and completing the forms provided.

Where does all this leave the non-lawyer who needs legal services? Basically, you travel at your own risk. The problem is you don’t know what you don’t know.

Granted, it sounds self-serving for lawyers to oppose online services, but, if it were all that simple, then three years of graduate study and the successful completion of a two-day bar examination would be unnecessary.

A simple LLC? – no problem: fill in the blanks and hit “file.” But, uhh, how do you intend to classify the entity for tax purposes? What are the differences? What form do you use? Do you need an “operating agreement?” Separate bank account? How about an EIN?

Your author has seen what can happen to a “simple will” created online. In an actual case recently, because of some conflicting wording downloaded into the form, the estate administrator was forced to go to court for clarification. Two years and nearly $30,000 in costs and fees later, the estate was settled in a manner which was inconsistent with the testator’s intention.

Often there are different but related legal matters occurring at the same time, as, for example, with a marital dissolution and will revisions. There is a need for wise counsel and, sometimes, more than one lawyer with different specialties. Of course, fees escalate. Would that it were not so. Unfortunately, it is the system in which we live.

From "Amy & Dan Smith's Planning for Life" column appearing monthly in the Blue Ridge Leader, Loudoun County, VA.

The foregoing article contains general legal information only and is not intended to convey legal advice.  For legal advice regarding estate planning, the reader should contact his/her lawyer.

Daniel D. Smith is a partner in the law firm of Smith & Pugh, PLC, 161 Fort Evans Road, NE, Suite 345, Leesburg, VA 20176. (Tel: 703-777-6084, www.smithpugh.com).

Amy V. Smith Wealth Management, LLC is an independent firm.  Amy V. Smith, CFP, CIMA offers securities through Raymond James Financial Services, Inc., member FINRA/SIPC.  Her office is located at 161 Fort Evans Road, NE, Suite 345, Leesburg, VA 20176.  (Tel: 703-669-5022, www.amysmithwealthmanagement.com). Any opinions are those of Amy and Dan Smith and not necessarily those of Raymond James.  Raymond James does not guarantee that the foregoing material is accurate or complete and does not provide legal advice.  Dan Smith is not affiliated with Raymond James.