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Myth 12: “My best option is to simply download some forms from the Internet.”

Reality: If you perform your own surgery based on a YouTube video, feel free to follow the same approach with your estate plan. Otherwise, this may not be the best approach.

Again, just because you can do something does not mean you should. I might be able to pull out a problem tooth with a pliers, but I know any dentist will do a much safer and more reliable job of that.

I’m a huge fan of the Internet and all the information and other resources it puts at my fingertips, but I know there are significant limits to what the Internet can teach us. There’s much good information on WebMD, and there are even now online “doctor” services available that offer “virtual” medical exams and consultations. But I know enough to go to my physician when I have a medical issue.

I believe there is much in common between the medical and legal professions, including their focus on serving and caring for clients, bringing their knowledge, skill, and training to bear on their clients’ behalf, and customizing their “treatment” for the individual needs of their client. Just as doctors don’t flippantly prescribe the same medicine for all their patients, lawyers should never push the same, off-the-rack legal forms into their clients’ hands.

Most Internet legal service providers push the same legal forms on everyone, customized solely by their individual names and addresses. If you ever scout out such “legal” websites, you’ll quickly discover they let you know very clearly that they are not your attorney and that they are not providing legal services. Here’s what LegalZoom’s website will tell you:

We are not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. We cannot provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.

I use the example of LegalZoom because it’s one of the best known and most successful of the online legal services providers. The folks who started and who still run it decided most people don’t understand how complex law can get and don’t care enough about their legal affairs to get proper counseling on their particular situations and circumstances; they just want the quickest, easiest, and (supposedly) least expensive solution.

You’ll find that other Internet legal services likewise wash their hands of any responsibility or liability in the same way; they say that they’re just selling you papers and that you assume any and all risks for attempting your own “self-help” legal work. They don’t give you any assurance that what you’re buying applies in your particular situation or will accomplish what you want. If things don’t go according to plan and there’s a problem later with your Internet legal “stuff,” you’re on your own.

My mother has undergone shoulder and other surgical procedures over the past few years, all performed at a specialty surgery center by very qualified and skilled doctors and other medical professionals. She went back there for therapy and other follow up matters. Imagine what our reaction would have been if we had read a disclaimer on the entrance to the building that read,

We are not doctors or any other type of licensed medical professionals. Nobody in the building is qualified to perform any medical procedures. We simply provide the “tools” and “instructions” associated with the relevant surgical procedure, and patients and their families bear sole responsibility for the outcomes of surgery the families themselves perform.

Maybe the sign would explain that for a little more money, they could find someone in the building to perform the surgery, but that person would not be qualified to do so, would do only what the patient wanted done, and the patient would be totally on his or her own if complications arose. The facility would not be responsible in any way—no guarantees at all.

This is, of course, an absurd example; no person in his or her right mind would ever consider such a procedure under such terms and conditions. And yet, a great many people are convinced such Internet-based legal information is wise and good and will save them time and money and “trouble” in the long run. Many of these people will get lucky, and things will work out just fine for them—at least in the short term. However, when it comes to something like medicine and legal work, like many careful and thoughtful individuals, I don’t want to rely on being “lucky,” and I’m sure you feel the same way.