Man in the mirrorFour years ago, Michele Ellson created an online community newspaper, The Island, in Alameda, Calif., under a limited partnership. But she didn't hire an attorney to form the LLC or file the paperwork.

Instead, Ellson turned to LegalZoom, where she spent $552 to gain access to the forms and have attorneys review the paperwork and file it with the state. "I was looking for something easy to use and one where I knew what to pay up front," Ellson says.

Ellson is one of an increasing number of consumers trying their hands at being do-it-yourself lawyers. Last year, Google Ventures poured $18.5 million into Rocket Lawyer, which boasted 70,000 users a day and doubled its revenue for four years running, according to a Forbes report. And LegalZoom, according to its website, has served more than a million customers.

With the economy still in the doldrums, here's a list of some of the options available to consumers who wish to being their own legal eagles, and potentially save some money in the process.

A Will to Save Money

Based on a typical last will and testament form for a married couple with minor children, here are some of the fees and features of various online legal services:

U.S. Legal Forms:

  • $24.95 to download a form, or $69 if attorneys provide advice when filling out form.
  • Provides a general description of a will and its purpose.
  • Allows users to drill down based on state of residence and marital situation.


LegalZoom:

  • $69 to $79 for a basic form and a 30-day free trial of its Legal Advantage Plus service, which includes access to an attorney.
  • While the site offers little educational information about wills, it does provide a $50,000 guarantee in case a court finds the document invalid because it was created by the user online.


Rocket Lawyer:

  • Free with a one-week trial membership, $19.95 per month afterward, $17.95 per month with access to an unlimited number of documents, or $9.99 per month with a one-year prepaid subscription to access unlimited documents and reviews from local attorneys.
  • Provides some educational information regarding wills, and when to use their service.
  • No information on pricing until document is filled out.


LawDepot.com:

  • $19 per will for two-week access, $38 per will for one-year access, or $33 per month for access to all forms.
  • Provides extensive videos to walk users through the process of filling out forms.
  • Users do not learn how much each form costs until the document is filled out.

And the Reviews Say...

Reviews for online legal forms run the gamut. TopTenReviews is pretty generous with its ratings. The site listed U.S. Legal, LawDepot and FindLegalForms.com as "excellent," while Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom received "very good" ratings.

Consumer Reports was less forgiving last year when it rated several do-it-yourself software products for wills, including online offerings LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer.

According to Consumer Reports, problems with the services include outdated information regarding such things as federal estate tax limits; insufficient customization, which typically offers scant detail on estate tax laws; few freedoms, like the ability to describe the distribution of assets as desired; or too much leeway, which allows for some customization but doesn't include the clauses necessary to account for such changes.

The report noted that unless consumers have a very simple game plan -- e.g., the spouse inherits everything with no stipulations -- the do-it-yourself services are likely to fall short of an individual's needs.

When You Should Go to a Pro

Consumer Reports suggests folks would be better off hiring an attorney if their needs stray beyond the simplest will. As you would expect, there are a plethora of sites to help you find a pro to hire.

AttorneyFee, for example, offers comparisons of legal fees charged by attorneys based on the city they serve and area of practice. (For example, attorney fees for drafting a will can range from $175 to $3,500 in San Francisco.)

Another route is to work with legal aid services. However, access to such services is usually based on an individual's income and specific need of service, such as fair housing or access to health care.

Ellson, meanwhile, has embarked on another venture since folding The Island last year. Last month, she created a nonprofit website, the Alameda Community News Project. But unlike her last venture, setting this one up requires more legal wrangling, and she says she is locking down an attorney for the site.

Fast and cheap apparently doesn't always work.

Motley Fool contributor Dawn Kawamoto does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google.


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