You may have heard of the Internet being used to assist people in filing for divorce or declaring bankruptcy, and now another legal area where people are turning to the Web is in the preparation of an estate plan. As with other areas of the law, you must be very cautious when using estate planning Web sites so that you’re sure that the information is reliable and that the forms you’re using will do what you want them to do. Here’s some advice to help you navigate a potential minefield.
DEVELOPING AN ESTATE PLAN USING FORMS FROM THE INTERNET Depending on the nature of someone’s estate — how much property they own, their income, the number of children they have — an estate plan can be a simple or complex plan. If the plan is basic enough, completing a form downloaded from the Internet may do the trick. Often people ask me, “Do I need more than a simple will?” My answer is always, “That depends...” While there is a great deal of “boilerplate” in any estate plan, the give and take with a trained lawyer in developing the plan can be very important when dealing with sophisticated issues.
THE ISSUES THAT COMPLICATE AN ESTATE PLAN Income and anticipated income:
If someone has significant income, or anticipates earning significant amounts during his or her career, estate planning concerns become more complex. If this is the case, simply answering questions on an Internet site and downloading a will form, may not accomplish the result you are seeking.
If someone has children, many issues become important, for example: Who will act as the guardian of the children in the event both parents die? If the children are young, who will act as a “trustee” over amounts that may be given to them? How will provisions for college be made?
Estate planning goals:
Some people have very basic estate planning goals, such as simply giving all of their property to their spouse. Others, however, want to leave money to charity, or accomplish some other result. These concerns require discussion with trained professionals so that the results you are seeking are accomplished.
Amount and nature of property:
Issues regarding the amount and nature of property can dictate how an estate plan is drafted. For example, does a person have a high net worth or a modest estate? In addition, are a person’s assets tied up in a family owned business or are they “liquid”? Again, going through a website may not allow the individual to ask the questions necessary to accomplish the goals they are seeking.
ASSESSING LEGAL INFORMATION WEB SITES The American Bar Association has published guidelines called “Best Practice Guidelines for Legal Information Website Providers,” with the dual goals of promoting the development of quality legal websites for consumers and providing guidance to legal website developers. The ABA believes that the following guidelines should be adhered to:
Contact information and dates:
The website should provide contact information and date of the material provided because laws and information about legal matters change frequently over time.
The website should provide information so that the user knows about the jurisdiction to which the website’s content relates. Some legal websites have state specific information, while others purport to reach all 50 states.
When a site provides only legal information, the provider should give users conspicuous notice that the legal information does not constitute legal advice. In other words, the ABA believes that using the information on a website does not substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.
Links and referrals:
Sites should link to other resources that are likely to assist users and where appropriate, they should contain links to relevant case law and legislation. In addition, if appropriate, the website should provide users with information on how and where to obtain legal advice and further information. The website, for example, could refer to other online services that provide consumers with information about how to find a lawyer or the website could link to bar association referral services.
Permission, terms and conditions, and privacy:
Developers of websites should obtain permission to use content from other providers, and should define the terms under which a user is authorized to use the website and/or to purchase products or services from the website. Finally, sites should clearly and conspicuously provide users with their privacy policies and policies of security of communications.
By adhering to these guidelines, a consumer can evaluate the quality of the website, can determine how best to use the site, and ultimately, can make a judgment on whether additional information or guidance should be obtained from a lawyer.
CONCLUSIONS ABOUT LEGAL INFORMATION ON THE INTERNET There is no question that providing the public with sound, reliable and pertinent legal information on the Internet is a positive development. For years people were “in the dark” about very basic issues of law, and through the questions I receive from the public, it is clear that people are becoming more sophisticated about legal issues. The problem, of course, is that just like anything else on the web, there are good sites and there are bad sites, and it is not always possible to understand which ones are reliable and which ones are not.
When someone wishes to accomplish a legal result, such as getting divorced, filing bankruptcy, or drafting an estate plan, they can easily misunderstand complicated legal concepts. In estate planning, for example, the deficiencies of an estate plan may not be known until after the person has died. His or her beneficiaries may suffer as a result, and his or her good intentions may not be realized.
I suggest using the Web to gain information before speaking to a professional so that you can reduce costs, allow the professional to be as efficient as possible, and can accomplish your individual goals. A “one-size-fits-all” approach to the law is generally not a good thing unless your situation is very basic. Finally, use caution and learn as much as you can before taking what might be an irreversible step.
Alan Kopit is a consumer attorney with the firm Hahn Loeser and Parks LLP in Cleveland, Ohio and a regular contributor to “Today.”