Let’s face it: law is a business, first and foremost. If you’ve ever hired a lawyer before, you don’t need me to tell you that!
In business, it’s always a good idea to keep abreast of the competition. You always want to make sure you keep current on what the competition is offering, compared to what you offer, in terms of price and quality.
Everyone in business should take advantage when technology can offer a competitive edge. At the same time, I think it is important to maintain a personal touch. I would like to think the personal touch, and a quality product, matter to my clients. But people are cost-conscious too, so how do the services I offer measure up to what else is out there?
So this week, I am taking a deep dive into the main purveyor of online legal solutions: LegalZoom!
What does LegalZoom offer in the way of estate planning? How well do they understand Louisiana’s unique civil law traditions, and how those civil law principles impact the estate plans of their Louisiana clients and customers?
And of course: is it a good value?
It’s True. LegalZoom is Cheap! It’s also true you get what you pay for.
At first blush, it looks like a pretty good deal. It seems LegalZoom is pretty inexpensive! If you want a will, even if it includes a more complex provision like a trust, it is $89. If you want to add on a healthcare declaration or a power of attorney, they are $39 each. So everything combined for the basic plan is $167. Not bad!
How does that stack up against what I offer, and what other local lawyers offer? I know I can’t just quote a fixed price. My prices are flexible, depending on what is best for your estate plan, and depending on the needs you and I carefully work out in your free initial consultation. I don’t make it a habit of going around asking other lawyers what they charge, but I feel safe saying there is not a single lawyer in Louisiana who can consistently beat Legal Zoom’s basic price and afford to stay in business.
If I cannot possibly compete on price, should I get out? In fact, shouldn’t all estate planning practices just wrap it up and get out of the way, if the main competition is an interstate corporate behemoth that can offer Louisianans such a great value they cannot possibly meet?
Well, not quite yet. Price is not the only consideration.
It may be trite to say “you get what you pay for,” but I know for a fact that I regularly provide people estate planning advice that costs them a few hundred bucks now but will save their estates thousands of dollars, not to mention a lot of time and anguish, when the time comes to open their succession. So unless you are the type of person who is fine saving a dime today on a decision that will cost you ten bucks tomorrow, maybe those initial savings shouldn’t be the end of your inquiry.
Does Legal Zoom understand the unique aspects of Louisiana law? Is it flexible enough that it can accommodate your needs personally, or is it a one-size-fits-all product? Let’s take a look at a specific example.
If there is one aspect of Louisiana succession law that everyone has heard of, it’s forced heirship: the requirement that if you have one or more children under 23, they are forced heirs to whom you must leave a portion of your estate: 25% if you have one forced heir, 50% if more than one. Even if you want your spouse to inherit everything, you have to make sure your kids receive this much, at least until they turn 23. Of course, that’s not the end of the question, and there are always tricks the savvy lawyer can employ to get his client where she needs to be.
The simple, elegant solution is to leave your spouse the use and fruits of your estate (called the “usufruct”) for the rest of her life, with a duty to preserve the core value (or naked ownership) of your property for the kids. Contemplating that a grieving widower may not want to immediately figure out how he’s going to survive with his spouse gone, the Civil Code specifically allows for this. Usually, I find people want to leave their spouse the entire estate in usufruct. But you do not have to. A smart and thoughtful lawyer will talk over your needs with you, arrange it so you can leave your spouse any percentage you like, and still make sure your kids stay protected.
Everyone is different. Yes, that means you.
The point is to allow for flexibility. Everyone is different, with different lives, different ideas, and different needs. Does LegalZoom allow that flexibility to account for what is best for you? It sure doesn’t look like it to me! As of this writing, here is their take on leaving property to your spouse in usufruct:
“If you wish to give everything to your spouse, but also have forced heirs, your LegalZoom Will provides for the spouse’s use of the forced portion of the estate during the spouse’s lifetime. When the spouse passes away, the forced portion is given to the children.”
Well. That’s not much of a choice, is it?
A couple of weeks ago, I had a client come in who grumbled that his wife was a bit of a spender. He wanted her to be comfortable when he was gone, but he was worried that if he left her everything, it would all be gone long before his child hit adulthood. No problem! Leave her the rights to use everything for the rest of her life, but obligate her to give the core value of all of his property – not just the forced portion — to the kid. Problem solved! Simple, easy, tailored to him, and it put his mind at ease.
However, if my client had used the basic Legal Zoom will instead, what would have been the result? If Legal Zoom’s only option is to put only the forced portion in usufruct, he would risk 75% of his estate being frittered before it ever reached his child. I am pretty sure it was worth it to him to spend a little more on the front end to make sure his wife will have the use of his property, but his child is taken care of as he intended when he is gone. He was a lot happier knowing he had options, and working out what option was best for him, rather than being forced into a succession plan that would have left him only one choice he did not want. Was it worth it to him to spend a little more than $89 to get him there?
Would it be worth it to you?
Legal Zoom is a great idea. It has a fantastic business plan that I imagine works well in the other forty-nine states that do not have a Civil Code. But we Louisianans do things a bit differently than the rest of the country, and our laws reflect that. The forced heirship issue is only one area I can point to where, in my opinion, LegalZoom offers only a blunt instrument and does not bother to appreciate the nuance of our laws.
It’s a small difference, but it can mean all the difference in the world to you.
Sometimes, you want to take the cheapest option available. Other times, taking the cheapest option now will cost you thousands of dollars down the line.
Don’t trust your future to an out of state corporation that doesn’t know you, and doesn’t know Louisiana. And don’t hesitate to plan for that future. Talk for free today to an experienced, capable Louisiana lawyer who will take the time to get to know the needs of you and your family before sketching out your estate plan.