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Frequently Asked Questions

Why do I need estate planning? If I die, doesn't everything just go to my family?

Estate planning is something everybody should consider regardless of your financial status. Planning ahead allows for the smooth transition of dividing and distributing your property to those who you wish to receive it upon your death. By creating a will and/or trust, you can help your loved ones better handle the difficult process of settling your affairs in a quick and potentially private manner.  

As to the second question about what happens to your property when you die, the answer is, "it depends."  Depending upon the size of an estate, whether or not you are married, and what kind of assets you have, your heirs may have to go through a process called "Probate" in order to receive inheritances. This process can be lengthy and expensive.

What is probate? Why don't I want my estate subject to it?


Probate is a court supervised process in which the assets of the deceased are accounted for, debts and expenses incurred by the deceased are settled, and distributions are ultimately made to heirs by a court-appointed administrator.  Generally, those dying with assets greater than $184,500 or those having an interest in real estate will have their property be subject to the probate. However, this threshold does not include debts, only the value of assets held. For example, if you home was your only asset and was worth $500,000, but had a mortgage of $400,000, your estate would be calculated at $500,000, not $100,000 as the debt would not be factored in when determining if you are subject to probate or not.


If there is a will, the court will distribute the assets per the wishes of the deceased as long as those wishes are lawful and the will meets the legal requirements of California. Those dying without a will or those whose wills do not meet the requirements set forth by the statute, will have their property distributed by a formalized set of rules to the heirs at law, stipulated by statute in the Probate Code.

Most people want to avoid probate due to the length of time it takes to settle the estate and the costs associated with pursuing a court action. A normal probate case will take anywhere from 9 months to more than 18 months depending upon the complexity of the estate, the debts held by the deceased, and the availability of heirs.  Additionally, probate costs can be extensive as court fees, property management costs, and attorney's fees are all chargeable to the estate. By statute, the attorney handling the probate action are entitled to fees at the following rates:​

  • 4% of the first $100,000 of the gross value of the probate estate.

  • 3% of the next $100,000

  • 2% of the next $800,000

  • 1% of the next $9 million

  • .5% of the next $15 million

Individuals who have transferred property to a revocable living trust will not have to go through the court process of probate after death. The trustee is given the power to carry out the wishes of the creator of the trust and will settle the estate privately, out of court.​

What's wrong with using Legal Zoom? Can't I save a lot of money using them?


For some people, Legal Zoom can be a perfectly acceptable option. For simple estates where the individual isn't worried about probate costs, potential delays, or having a court oversee the distribution of assets upon death, a simple will can suffice and can be easily obtained from websites like Legal Zoom. I have even sent prospective clients there when I don't think my services would add significant value. 

However, a big caveat to Legal Zoom is that they are not able to offer legal advice themselves and can't make any recommendations or catch complex and unique issues that arise in many situations. They can't determine what exactly your needs are and whether a will, trust, or other instrument is appropriate for you. When utilizing their services, the forms and documents selected are based on generic questions that apply in a one size fits all scenario,  There is little to no customization of the instruments being prepared, as sites like Legal Zoom are legally prohibited from offering advice to you.  Legal Zoom's own disclaimer notes the following:

  1. It is not a law firm, and its employees are not acting as your attorney.

  2. Its legal document service is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. 

  3. It cannot provide legal advice and can only provide self-help services at your specific direction.

  4. It is prohibited from providing any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation to a consumer about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies. 



Although the packages available on Legal Zoom may offer a 30 minute consultation with a real lawyer regarding your estate plan, that person did not prepare your documents and cannot offer any real advice as he/she will spend most, if not all, of the allotted time just reviewing the papers to determine what your will and trust actually say. The attorney advice offered by Legal Zoom is more of a referral service out to regular estate planning attorneys in your state. If you would like a more detailed review or advice beyond that initial call, you can then hire that lawyer at his or her standard billing rate. 

Finally, the true costs of using self-help sites like Legal Zoom are not as clear as they appear. An estate plan bundle in California for a couple, including printing, runs around $400+. However, this does not include retitling certain assets such as your home. A separate service is required to prepare and record a new deed so that your house becomes a trust asset. This will costs an additional $250 plus state fees. Finally, most of the documents in an estate plan need to be notarized in order to be effective. Generally, there will be 20+ signatures that need to be notarized in a comprehensive plan. Notaries in California are allowed to charge $15 per signature for acknowledgments starting January 1, 2017, leading to an additional $300+ in potential costs.


Adding everything up, a fully executed and exercisable estate plan through Legal Zoom may end up being almost $1,000 without any input or advice from a real attorney. 

So, when should I consider using an attorney to prepare an Estate Plan?


If any of the following applies to you, self-help sites like Legal Zoom may not be enough and more comprehensive planning with an attorney should be considered:

  • You own or have a partial interest in any real estate, including your own home

  • You have minor children, children in college, or children with special needs

  • You and/or your spouse have significant life insurance policies

  • You have combined assets of more than $184,500 including IRAs (e.g. 401K, 403(b), etc.), investment, checking, savings, or brokerage accounts

  • You have business interests such as ownership or partial ownership in a sole proprietorship, a partnership, an LLC, or a Corporation (including closely held or S Corp.)

  • You are a blended family with children from previous marriages and/or step-children

  • You wish to leave assets to non-family members, in different amounts to different heirs, or wish to disinherit someone specifically

  • You wish to keep your estate private and do not want your loved ones to go through a public probate process

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