Fred A. Bernstein

Being of Sound Mind, and a $55 Consultation

Can a website write me a new will?

Published in The New York Times, December 14, 2000

After September 11,, which provides wills and other legal documents over the Internet, found itself dispensing solace, free of charge. "People would call and say, 'I'm getting on a plane tomorrow, and I really need a will,' " said Shana Susman, a LegalZoom employee. "Sometimes, they just needed to stay on the phone and talk."

I could have been one of those people. Before leaving on a business trip last fall, my first flight after Sept. 11, I made sure my will was up to date. My lawyer did the job in a matter of hours. But a few months later, when my will needed updating, I decided to try LegalZoom.

The company, based in Los Angeles, promises not only to "help you prepare reliable legal documents online," but also to review those documents for "consistency and completeness." How, I wondered, could it provide that "professional review" -- as part of a $55 will package -- in a city where lawyers often charge hundreds of dollars an hour? The answer, in part, is Ms. Susman, a singer and songwriter whose day job as a "document processor" at LegalZoom includes checking wills. "It's making sure you don't leave half of your estate to three different people," explained Ms. Susman, who points out that she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale.

I knew the company could not give legal advice. LegalZoom's founders -- who include Robert Shapiro, once O. J. Simpson's lawyer -- might be charged with practicing law without a license if they did. (The company's president, Brian Lee, and its chief executive, Brian Liu, are admitted to the bar only in California.) It is no wonder that before receiving a document from LegalZoom, you are required to represent that "LegalZoom did not provide me with any advice, explanation or representation" about any legal rights, remedies, defenses or options -- among other disclaimers.

But if a site like LegalZoom is not offering advice, or even explanation, what exactly is it doing? "We're taking customers' information and inserting it into forms," said Edward Hartman, the chief strategic and technology officer, who is bleary-eyed from thousands of hours spent writing the company's LegalWiz programs. He sees LegalZoom's service as a middle ground between using a disk-based program like WillMaker Deluxe ($19.99) and hiring a lawyer. As Mr. Liu pointed out, "If you use a disk, there's no one to catch your mistakes."

LegalZoom has plenty of online competition. Wills for America offers a "standard will" for $20 (and has links to the wills of Elvis Presley and the Princess of Wales). There are also TheWillExpert .com ($19.99) and ($14.95), which promise wills instantly, but those companies do not claim to review or even read what you submit. Drawn to LegalZoom by its prime placement on AltaVista and Yahoo, I was won over when I learned that someone would check my work.

LegalZoom uses a questionnaire format. The questionnaire is interactive -- if you say you are single, you are not asked how much you want to leave your spouse.

LegalZoom wanted me to answer yes or no to the question "Would you like to protect the executor of your will from liability?" But it did not say how either answer would be translated into legalese. That approach might satisfy some users, but it left me, a nonpracticing lawyer, scratching my head. LegalZoom also expected me to give an honest answer to the question "Are you free of any mental illness?"

Ms. Susman has seen some unusual provisions. "One man wanted to leave $1,000 to one son and a penny to the other," she said. "And a woman wanted to be buried with a bottle of Jack Daniels." In both cases, she had no reason, she said, to object.

Mr. Hartman said that LegalZoom permits bequests to up to 32,767 people. "Any more than that, and we'll call to ask what's going on in your life," he said, deadpan.

It took me about an hour to complete the questionnaire. For the finished will (sent by e-mail and first-class mail within 48 hours), I paid $55; I resisted a $40 upgrade that permits unlimited revisions for five years. The company also has a "vault" package -- for $115 it will store your will in three secure locations. But how is that better than keeping your will at home, at your office and at your bank? (And what if your survivors forget that LegalZoom exists? Or what if LegalZoom goes out of business?)

Once you get the will, it is yours to modify. "We'll even send it to you as a Word document if you want," Mr. Hartman said. He said LegalZoom has been completing about 800 wills a month -- 40 percent of its total output, which includes incorporation papers and prenuptial agreements.

Because LegalZoom cannot give legal advice, though, it tends to be silent on questions of law -- and silence can be misleading. In my will, I wanted to leave my father part of my estate, but with the proviso that he bequeath anything left over at the time of his death to my children. As Ms. Susman pointed out, "I would have fixed the spelling of 'otherwise.' " (I had left off the final "e.") But she would not -- could not -- tell me that such a proviso is not binding (something I have since confirmed with a lawyer, who pointed out other ways to accomplish my goal). I might have died in the na´ve belief that my children were protected.

The company does offer two varieties of legal help: an online library of information in outline form and access to Tele-Lawyer (a $3-per-minute phone service). Sometimes the company tells people -- either by e-mail or by phone -- to seek legal advice. When I mentioned that the children in question would be born this summer and that I wanted to provide for them should I die before their birth, Mr. Lee, the president, said: "Unborn children? That's the kind of thing that immediately makes us send you to a lawyer."

For those without access to a lawyer, LegalZoom offers an online referral service, with a novel twist: type in a one-paragraph description of your problem, and the company will forward it to a number of lawyers, who essentially bid on the job. I tried it for an unrelated legal problem, and within hours I had about a half dozen lawyers offering to help.

Beyond the advice itself, there are other reasons to consider using a lawyer. For one, a will is not effective until it is signed in front of witnesses, and a law office usually has employees who can fill that role. Another is the law profession's code of conduct. For example, I know that my lawyer will not divulge personal information -- and that if he does, I can sue him or try to have him disbarred. It is unclear what recourse I would have if a disclosure occurred at an online service.

Ms. Susman, who turned out to be the cousin of a close friend, assured me that she would never tell anyone what is in my will (or isn't in it) and mentioned the company's privacy policy, under which a tattletale employee risks "termination and other disciplinary measures, up to being criminally prosecuted."

"If you have a paralegal reading it at a law firm," Mr. Hartman said, "you introduce the same kind of risk."

But not exactly. A person who helps prepare a will could be called to testify at a civil or criminal trial. A law-firm employee can usually refuse to answer questions about client confidences, under the doctrine of attorney-client privilege. But LegalZoom has no such privilege. After all, it isn't practicing law.