The high cost of law

My situation is simple, but I know I need a Will. I just phoned a lawyer and they said it would cost $900. I’m a senior, I can’t afford that

We received this call into our customer service group yesterday and it got me thinking about the true cost of the law. Why would a lawyer feel that an appropriate charge for a Will in this situation would be $900? after all, they will almost certainly put some basic information into a software package and generate a simple Will for an individual. They might even try and persuade the senior to name the law firm as the Executor of the Will.

What is a person supposed to do if they can’t afford $900?

Every jurisdiction has seen cuts in affordable law. In Canada the The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, P.C., Chief Justice of Canada has been a tireless campaigner of affordable law, claiming that the legal system has failed the middle classes by over-charging for simple services. We have recently seen protests in the UK over the plans to cut £220M from legal aid. The protests were made up primarily of our most vulnerable in society. In the US Jim Silkenat, who has just been elected president of the American Bar Association (ABA), warned that there is an enormous unmet legal need among those who cannot afford it, even though there are well over 1 Million lawyers in the US !! Unfortunately, no lawyer in the US is required to offer affordable or pro-bono work.

So the top lawyers in the countries serviced by LegalWills all agree that their legal system is broken. And I would say that trying to charge $900 to write a Will for a senior is symptomatic not only of a broken legal system, but also of a sense of entitlement felt by many people serving in the legal profession. That’s how we end up with situations like this one where “A solicitor has been jailed for stealing more than £200,000 from clients including one who had received compensation for brain damage…..and spent money on luxury cars and cosmetic surgery for his partner.”

This is why so many people are turning to services like those offered by LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com. For $34.95 in the US and Canada and £24.95 in the UK, you can create your Will in about 20 minutes; using the same software that will probably be used by the lawyers charging hundreds. But with the added advantages of unlimited updates, convenience, and the chance to learn a little bit about the process while you are creating your Will, so you will really understand the contents.

Everybody needs a Will, and it should never be made unaffordable. That’s just not fair.

Should Will Kits be banned?

You will often hear legal professionals talking about the dangers of writing your own Will, and we regularly defend an individual’s right to prepare their own legal documents if they are given the right tools to do so. But we mustn’t confuse the right to prepare one’s Will, with the use of a blank-form, do-it-yourself kit. We firmly believe that using a downloadable blank form is dangerous, and we would even go as far as to say, it should be illegal.

We have previously discussed our concern with Will kits; the form-based, downloadable, fill-in-the-blanks type kits. Our main reservations with these kits include;

  1. They place too much onus on the end user to put in the correct information
  2. They are not customized to local jurisdictions
  3. There is no check to ensure that everything written in the blank spaces is legal
  4. There is no check that all scenarios and all alternate plans are include
  5. There is no way for the end user to know if they have a legal Will once the form has been completed
blank form

Blank form kit…good luck!

We recently received an email from a prospective customer asking us why our service cost money, when they could download a free kit from the internet, so we took a look specifically at the kit they were considering; it shocked us.

The kit had a banner at the top calling it “Legal Canadian Will Kit documents” . The user was then prompted to enter their name, the name of their Executor, Alternate Executor, and Guardians for children. It was followed by a blank page, with the subheading “I REQUEST that my Guardian(s)…”, with a signature page stating that the Will is on this page and the preceding pages. A little odd, because the signature page was then followed by a page describing the distribution of assets. This means that the distribution of the assets was not even in the Will !!

To top it off, the page after that was blank with the subheading “I give my Executor the following powers…”

I defy any member of the general public to correctly express a number of clauses for Executor powers – really, what on earth is a person supposed to include here? To give you some context, a Will created using our service includes thirteen clauses outlining the Executor powers and some are complicated.

The concern here is that this blank form would not be admissible in a court of law. It simply would not work. Presumably, the document is being downloaded on a regular basis by unwitting customers who are trying to save some legal fees. But surely there needs to be some level of accreditation or governance before a website can mislead so many people, so dangerously.

At LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com we have to somehow differentiate our service from the cheap or free downloadable kits. Our services are fully interactive, developed by estate planning lawyers in each jurisdiction and provide help every step of the way. For example, if you have minor children (the definition of which varies across jurisdictions), our services will prompt you to set up a trust for those children (a section completely missing from the kit we sampled). In our 13 years of service we have had countless Wills pass through the probate process, and never once has one of our Wills had an issue.

We believe that most people do not have to pay expensive legal fees to prepare their own Will, but we also believe that the downloadable blank forms need to be regulated or banned outright. We would recommend that people try our service, and compare it to a blank kit, then decide.

You don’t need much to leave a lasting legacy

We often hear people say that they don’t have a Will because they don’t have much to leave. In a previous article we explained how this excuse is a poor one, as a Will isn’t supposed to come into effect the day it is written, but at some point, hopefully in the distant future. Put simply, you have absolutely no idea what your estate may be worth, and it is very common for a person’s estate to be worth far more after they have passed away, than they were ever worth during their lifetime.

Last week though we were reminded of how modest legacies can make a real difference. Charities work hard to promote legacy donations, and there is no doubt that even the most wealthy charities gratefully accept $100 or £100 donations. However, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate how a small legacy can make a difference to a billion dollar charity.

Last week, the story of  Aaron Collins reminded us that you can be smart with your legacy gifts and make real differences with a modest amount of money. As a 30 year old cancer patient, Mr Collins knew he was going to die, but he didn’t have a huge net worth, his own brother said that he “didn’t have the money to take care of himself while he was alive”, but he believed in random acts of kindness and explained in his Will that he wanted his family to go out for pizza and leave the waitress “an awesome tip…..I don’t mean 25%. I mean $500 on a f***ing pizza for a waiter or waitress”. So his brother set up a blog asking for donations to respect Aaron’s wishes and money has started to roll in. When you watch the video of the waitress’ reaction you can’t help but be touched. It is inspiring to see how creative you can be with your Will to make a difference to people’s lives. Whether it’s buying a goat for a family in a developing country for just $75, or setting up a scholarship fund or prize at your old high school for $100.

Please feel free to add some great ideas below; what is the biggest bang for the buck you can get when leaving a legacy?

And if you have now been convinced that you don’t need to be wealthy to write a Will, you can prepare one in about 20 minutes for $34.95 at LegalWills.ca and USLegalWills.com and for £24.95 at LegalWills.co.uk. If you haven’t given as much to charity during your lifetime, maybe a legacy gift is something worth considering.

Forbes dust off tired arguments against writing your own Will

I’m not sure how many times in our blog we’ve had to present a rebuttal to a Forbes article warning people about the dangers of writing your own Will, but a search through our blog for “Forbes” brings up eight of our articles. A little time has passed, and so Forbes have dusted off their arguments again, and packaged them in a new article with a new author; this time an estate planning lawyer from New York.

It starts with the classic scaremongering tactic of comparing writing a Will with performing surgery. An age old technique, which we debunked in our post from 2010 “Writing a Will is not brain surgery“. Lawyers try to justify their sky high prices by comparing what they do in 15 minutes (step through a series of questions using some pre-purchased software and downloading a Will), to brain surgery or laser eye surgery. The two are nothing close to equivalent. As we said in our previous post, lawyers are trying to make it seem like an black art that can only be performed by trained professionals when in fact

“Let’s get real. Writing your own Will is you, expressing how you would like your possessions to be distributed after you die. It may also include naming the person that you wish to look after your children if both you and the other parent were to both die at the same time. If you sign this document in the presence of two witnesses who then both sign, you have created a legal Last Will and Testament. It is not brain surgery, it is not laser eye correction surgery, it is simply an expression of your wishes for your estate.”

Remember, there is nothing in any law or statute regarding the creation of Wills that mentions the use of a lawyer as a requirement.

The most recent blog article from Forbes goes on to make two important claims. That “The courts are filled with cases of family members suing each other over ambiguous language in a will that must have seemed so easy to understand at the time it was written”. I would love to see a survey of Will contests to see how many result from Wills written using services like the one at LegalWills.ca , LegalWills.co.uk or USLegalWills.com, compared to how many are challenges to Wills written by a lawyer. Whenever I see a Will challenge in the news, it is invariably for a Will written by a lawyer. Some lawyers turn out to be unscrupulous, others incompetent. There is nothing in a self-prepared Will that makes it inherently more likely to be challenged. In fact, last year in the UK the Legal Services Board conducted a “mystery shopper” study of consumer Wills using software, will writing services and solicitors. The results were quite revealing;

“The experts judging the wills had no idea whether they had been drafted by solicitors, will-writers, or indeed a chap who had just stepped off the Clapham Omnibus. But solicitors firms should be aware of what they found. One in four of the wills was ‘failed’ by the panel, and more than one in three was scored as either ‘poor’, or ‘very poor’. The worrying aspect for the profession is that just as many of the failed wills were drawn up by solicitors!”

But wait, the final argument is always presented by estate planning lawyers that “improperly executed wills – for instance a will signed without the required witnesses – can be challenged in court”. This is of course true, but really? is this such a technically difficult concept for a layperson to understand that they should hire a lawyer? If you prepare your own Will, you must sign it in the presence of two adult witnesses who have no vested interest in the contents of the Will. There you have it. If you do this, you will have correctly signed your document.

We de-bunked another Forbes article in a previous post which gave 5 flimsy arguments for hiring a legal professional, but the article from last week appears to be the least compelling. When aggregated together the reasons for hiring an estate planning lawyer or solicitor appear to be

  • it’s as technically difficult as brain surgery (it isn’t)
  • it only costs a thousand dollars to hire a lawyer (a small amount if you’re a lawyer, but a large amount for the rest of us)
  • you may forget to sign the document in the presence of two witnesses (I think we can remember this)

Maybe this is why the Chief Justice of Canada The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin berated the legal profession as it had “ failed thousands of Canadians who don’t have a legal will, simply because they do not have the money to hire a lawyer to draft one or are so afraid that what it will cost will bankrupt them”

How much is too much? the price of a Will….

There was a wonderful, amusing article written in Time Magazine over the weekend by Joel Stein entitled “I can’t take it with me“. A couple of things stood out for me. Firstly how uncomfortable his estate planning attorney made him feel throughout the process of creating a Last Will and Testament. On more than one occasion the attorney made the point that the author didn’t have much money and his estate was quite small (this in spite of owning a house in Los Angeles and a condo in Manhattan). I’m not sure why an attorney would make the uncomfortable process of meeting with an estate planning professional any worse than it already is.

The attorney then went on to present every worst case scenario to his clients, which on the one hand is laudable, but asking a husband and wife if they trust each other is probably the wrong approach.

But more than the heavy-handed interaction and the belittling of the client, this was the sentence that stood out for me;

“The fee for all of this thinking about my death was going to be $5,000 to $8,000. Which seemed like a lot to pay someone, even if it meant he’d have to say I have a sound body. I asked if we could just slip Allan B. Cutrow, Esq., that amount in our will, but he didn’t seem up for that.”

So this was a Last Will and Testament being written up for a client who “didn’t have a lot of money” where the main beneficiary would be the spouse with a minor child as the alternate. There would also be a trust fund set up for the minor child. EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS !!!

This isn’t so out of sync with other articles we’ve read, like the Forbes article in which the author explained that their estate planning package cost her $4,500, 15 years ago.

We’ve had many people using our service frozen out of professional advice, like the one senior lady who needed to make a few changes to her Will and was quote $100 per edit. It’s little wonder that services like LegalWills are flourishing. Joel Stein could perhaps have created an identical Last Will and Testament using LegalWills, and instead of paying $8,000 he would have paid $34.95. And don’t forget, the $8,000 attorney would only have used software to create the documents based on information that he entered into the system. Not many clauses are created from scratch nowadays.

A service like the one at LegalWills may not be right for everybody, and complicated affairs need specialized legal advice, but when people are being charged so much money for so little advice the legal profession are not making themselves very accessible. Maybe $5,000 or $8,000 doesn’t seem like a great deal of money to a Manhattan lawyer, but this could be one of the reasons why over 70% of adults have not written their Will.