The Internet has made a great many things possible, from instant communication to the world’s largest collection of free information. Yet not all that information is accurate, and much of it offers only a limited view into a very complex set of specialized services erroneously understood to be easily replicated. Online legal services serves as a prime example.
While online legal services can indeed be useful, the idea that they could replace professional legal services at this point in our technological advancement as a viable alternative is misguided – and it is important to keep in mind why.
The Rise of Online Legal Services
The World Wide Web has become a marketplace for all things, online legal services included. However, there is still a limitation to what is legally permissible when it comes to the exchange of legal information. You can write and publish entire books online about the law, and any given aspect of it, but you cannot offer professional legal advice without technically taking someone on as a client or putting your reputation on the line with said advice. That involves having a law license to provide such legal advice, and specifically being licensed in any given State or Territory of the country to which the advice applies.
Nevertheless, legal services – particularly legal templates for a wide array of documents, from trusts to contracts – have been flourishing online as an alternative to hiring a professional. Despite the drastic difference in cost, it is not usually worth using an online legal service over paying extra for a professional opinion – because the cost of a single mistake is often much higher than any estate plan.
Why Online Legal Services Are Often Flawed
In a face-to-face conversation, a professional lawyer can ensure that what they are saying pertains specifically to their client, and cases very similar to theirs. Online legal services must generalize their information to remain as accurate as possible for a wide group of people, addressing numerous (yet not all) perspectives and concerns.
This might give you an interesting insight into a legal topic, but it does not help you make decisions – and neither should it.
Legal Information vs. Legal Advice
Legal advice and legal information are, in the technical sense, two very separate things with very separate meanings. It is important to make a distinction between the two and explain succinctly why this drives home the point that online legal services can be great complementary tools to exploring your options in any given situation but should remain complementary.
Legal advice involves the receiving of a professional opinion on a given legal situation, based on given information, specific circumstances, etc. Law firms and lawyers can give legal advice, but only to clients or in an otherwise formal sense.
Legal information, on the other hand, is what you find on the internet. Regardless of whether the information was compiled and authored by a professional lawyer or not, it does not count as legal advice unless a lawyer specifically addresses it to you and your situation, under some form of formal capacity (like a follow-up email after an initial consultation on the subject of divorce, for instance).
Legal information can be useful to help make informed decisions – but information obtained online should not, ideally, be the driving force behind any legal choices you make. Making a legally-binding decision is not easily reversible and can often be highly regrettable. Professionals work hard to ensure they help advise you on what the right choice might be, through careful deliberation and study of your situation. That insight is lacking when you look for information online.
Using Online Legal Services Responsibly
Online legal services can be excellent tools to help people better navigate their situation. When you are going through a legal process, having a better understanding of the situation can definitely help. Legal services can also provide you with enough assistance to carry out certain tasks.
But that’s where the help ends. If you need a legal document, then it is best to go to a local legal professional and have them help you draft the document and build it to your specifications.
Why You Need a Professional
Even attorneys specializing in other forms of the law and specialists in the finance sector are better off simply hiring a professional to do it right the first time. Estate planning is a highly specialized and highly localized field of study, and each state has its own nuances, details, and considerations.
Estate planning professionals often spend years studying their state’s laws before they begin setting up a practice or joining a firm – and considering how costly it can be to make a tiny clerical error in matters of estate planning and inheritance, this is not something you would necessarily want to take into your own hands.
There are exceptions – some people can count on one hand what they own and setting up a will in the case of very small or very simple estates is absolutely doable, so long as you know where to look, and what to look for. Any will template must specifically pertain to your state and area, and even then, be sure to read it thoroughly and do your own research on state-specific considerations.
But as soon as an estate reaches a certain respectable size, estate planning becomes exponentially more complex. Specifically in California, even if you have the simple goal of leaving your property to your only child, if you own home or other real property it is generally recommended you set up a living trust instead of just a will.
Deciding between wills and trusts, different types of healthcare directives, and specific techniques for tax efficiency are just a few of the many questions and challenges that lay ahead for anyone interested in either creating their own estate plan or working with a professional to get it all done.
Any number of several dozen simple mistakes can lead to mountainous piles of legal fees meant to help fix the error much later down the line. What started as a slight oversight can cost you and your family thousands upon thousands of dollars a few decades in the future.
While spending hours and hours in tackling your estate planning process on your own might seem like a proper way to save some money, a DIY could cost you several times what it would cost any estate planning specialist to sit down with you and formulate a specific, unique, and personalized estate plan based on the logistics of your estate, and your wishes as a person. More than just giving you a form to fill out with a few basic details, professional estate planners take time to help you figure out how to leave a lasting and useful financial legacy, without costing your family a fortune in both stress and time.