LegalZoom Faces Class Action Suit

Somebody once said that there is no such thing as bad publicity. In a nutshell, bad news is still good publicity, so long as they spell your name correctly. LegalZoom.com is back in the news again, and the company might disagree with the age-old marketing adage right now.

For those not familiar with the self-appointed titan of online lawyering, LegalZoom was founded in part by Robert Shapiro, who you should remember was a leading element of O.J. Simpson’s legal team several years ago. The company provides a litany of online legal services and boasts the ability to serve individuals who might otherwise not be able to afford the expense of an actual attorney. For the most part, the nine-year-old company’s services seem centered on a do-it-yourself approach, specializing in providing what are claimed to be “common” or “routine” documents – things like Wills and documents to form a business.

Now, the company is playing defense. A recent class action lawsuit has accused LegalZoom of unfair and deceptive business practices. The company is accused of leading customers to practice law without a license, assisting in the unauthorized practice of law, and using fraudulent business practices.

The chief plaintiff, Katherine Webster, has sued as the Executor of the Estate of Anthony Ferrantino, and as Trustee of the Anthony J. Ferrantino Living Trust. LegalZoom provided several document forms, including a trust, a will and a power of attorney. Per the company’s model, the customer essentially wrote the documents herself by answering several questions, while a computer created the documents based upon the answers. But the documents were flawed, the plaintiff claims, and those flaws cost the Estate severely.

LegalZoom is not the only company of its kind. It’s just the only one that uses a well-known attorney-founder as its spokesperson, lending security and credibility that some might claim is unjustified. The suit at hand will determine if LegalZoom in fact made misrepresentations, buried disclaimers and omitted relevant facts when courting customers through its advertising. It should be interesting to follow, and should at least serve as a cautionary tale for clients with real and often complex legal issues. Perhaps another adage may teach all of us a valuable lesson – you get what you pay for.

Top Ten Reasons to Re-do Your Will

10. You lost your Will. – While it is not impossible to probate a lost Will in Texas, it is exponentially harder to accomplish than with a valid written will. I won’t go into all the gory details, but unless you can show exactly how it was lost, and exactly what it contained, you are in for a very uphill battle. A copy can get you part of the way, but it will not get you to the finish line. So stop looking for it, we both know you won’t find it, just go get yourself a new one.

9. You don’t like what your Will says. – Sort of obvious I know, but many people fail to realize that simply tearing up a Will and ignoring it will not always ensure that it does not find it’s way to probate court. (See #10 for an example.) Also crossing out provisions and penciling in new ones will not cut it. If you don’t like what the old one says, you must get a new one that revokes all former Wills.

8. You have moved states. – Probate laws vary from state to state so the Will you executed prior to moving to Texas may or may not be valid now that you are in God’s country. Don’t leave it to chance, get in and get a new Will.

7. You have aquired property that you want to leave to someone specific. – Did Christopher Walken recently visit you and hand you your great grandfather’s WWI watch? Again, we’ll skip the details but do you really want to ignore the, um, sacrifice that Mr. Walken made and not do something to ensure that watch goes to your son or grandson when you are gone? Do not trust that simply telling someone will get the job done. The only way to ensure it gets there is to put it in your Will as a specific bequest. Don’t rely on the fact that you will be able to have your own Pulp Fiction moment with junior as you pass down that uncomfortable hunk of metal. If that happens great, but you need a fall back plan in case you check out early. Put it in your Will.

6. You won the lottery. – Or inherited a ton of money. Or got a promotion. Or let’s just say you somehow “acquired” new found wealth (hey we’re not asking any questions). The point is you now need some tax planning and it’s more than likely that the Will you had when you were dirt poor won’t cut it. Why give more to the Government than absolutely necessary? Go get a new Will and make sure your new found wealth is not used to bail out any more billionaires.

5. You got a divorce. – Very few Wills are ambiguous when it comes to who is contemplated by the term “spouse.” If your Will was… well that may be why you got divorced in the first place, but I digress. If instead your Will lists your Ex by name, and you don’t want that person getting everything now that they left you heartbroken and penniless, get in and get a new Will. Don’t wait till you get remarried, you can always add that new spouse on later (or not, again we’re not here to judge you).

4. You have a new baby. – Congrats! If this is your first child then you really want to think about getting a Designation of Guardian drafted along with a Will now that you are parent. If this is not your first child, does your Will mention the other children by name? Does it divide your estate based on a percentage? Does it provide specific bequests to the kids? If so, you need an update. If this is a late-in-life addition to your family, you probably want to think about a trust since now you can’t guarantee you will be around to ensure they are fiscally sound through college. Just try and remember when you were 18, if someone had handed you even a modest share (say 30k) is there any doubt you would have been rolling around in a new Camaro? (Man I wish I still had that car… and that hair.)

3. Your Will is not Self-Proved. – Texas law makes it very, very simple to probate a Will, if you have a properly drafted Will. Just because a Will is valid does not mean it accomplishes everything to simplify probate. Don’t make your loved ones have to drag two people to Court to testify that you were of sound mind when you drafted your Will. Get up off the couch and go get a new Will drafted. And this time go to a real attorney, your brother-in-law does not count. (unless of course he’s a board certified estate planner).

2. Your Will does not provide for independent administration. – Just because your Will says “without bond” does NOT mean that you have appointed your executor to act independent of Court supervision. If your Will does not provide for independent administration your beneficiaries are going to be forced to either jump through hoops to avoid a dependent administration or else be stuck with a much more costly and time consuming dependent administration of your estate. Why would you do that to them when a new Will is just a phone call away? Seriously, give me one good reason. You’re better than that.

1. You don’t have a Will to re-do. God forbid, but if you still don’t have a valid written Will, get yourself to your nearest probate attorney and get it drafted. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just do it. NOW!

‘Easy Rider’ Estate is in for a Bumpy Road

I am not usually one to fall into following tabloid or celebrity news, but a couple of stories from the past few days recently caught my eye and seemed appropriate to at least mention here. No, I won’t plug the paparazzi-style website that piqued my interest, but if you follow traditional news, you know that actor / film maker Dennis Hopper passed away last Saturday, after his battle with prostate cancer. Hopper was married five times over his life. The last one might really cost him.

Hopper and his fifth wife were in the process of divorcing one another. He filed in January of this year. Under a prenuptial agreement, Victoria Duffy would receive 25% of Hopper’s Estate, and $250,000 in life insurance proceeds. As a catch, the two had to be married and living together when he died.

That last part’s the trick. Over the last several months, various court rulings resulted in Duffy residing at Hopper’s property, but in a completely separate house. In fact, Duffy was previously ordered to remain at least 10 feet away from Hopper. Nonetheless, the wheels of justice turn slowly, and the two remained married when Hopper passed away, so Duffy is halfway home to a large payout.

Interestingly enough, the stories say that Duffy is not challenging Hopper’s Will. She’s just trying to make sure that her deal under the prenup stands. One of Hopper’s children seems set on making sure that never happens.

So the fight, and there will likely be a big one, now moves from the divorce court to the probate court. Whatever becomes of Hopper’s Estate will demonstrate that court’s application of laws related to prenuptial agreements, contracts and probate. And the results may well prompt other not-so-celebrity types to fully evaluate their own estate plans. We may not all be Hollywood A-listers, but whether the estate is $40,000 or $40 million, the stakes are high enough to engage in smart planning.