Tips on legal help websites

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – Websites offering legal help can be a great tool and possibly save you some money. But legal experts warn, use them with caution. If you are not careful, online legal help could land you in legal trouble. Maybe you've stumbled across one of these online legal help websites, or maybe you've used one. They offer help with things like divorces, wills, bankruptcy and more. We wanted to know, should consumers use the sites and if they did, would the documents hold-up in court.

We went to our legal expert, Steve Benjamin. He says, "It is like doing your own electrical wiring. Maybe you can do it and it will work fine but maybe you will burn your house down." While Benjamin warns you have to be careful, he's not against online sites Legal Zoom. He says consumers just have to remember these type of sites are just tools to help you along the way. He says, "The law is always changing, the forms not so much and so a citizens has to understand the form that they are using, may have been fine a year ago but is completely inadequate or outdated now."

We took our questions to Legal Zoom. We asked, "This website, the online documents, don't act as an attorney and you have a disclaimer on the website. How important it is to make sure you understand that." Chas Rampenthall with Legal Zoom says, "It would seem like common sense that the website isn't a lawyer, in the same way that WebMD wasn't a doctor or TurboTax wasn't a CPA."

Legal Zoom admits its site doesn't replace an attorney. The company says its mission is to make the legal process as simple as possible and save consumers money. Depending on your needs, the service can cost from $36 to $139 bucks. But what happens if you make a mistake? Benjamin says, "Once you get to court it is important to understand that you have either done it right or you haven't. And if you haven't done it right, you are going to suffer the consequences."

We checked, the company has an "A" rating with the Better Business Bureau. But not everyone gives Legal Zoom rave reviews. The company is dealing with a class-action lawsuit in California. Plaintiffs say they were mislead by Legal Zoom's advertising and promises made on its website. Rampenthall says, "That lawsuit is in the process of settling right now and so those claims were never proved out as actual. We do have a satisfaction guarantee."

Under that guarantee, Legal Zoom says if the documents aren't right for you, it will attempt to fix the problem or give you a refund. Disclaimers warn the site does not provide legal advice but general information on common legal issues. But, for an additional fee, Legal Zoom will put you in touch with an attorney. No matter what site you use, you have do your research and make sure you fully understand the documents. "Do it yourself as much as you can but at the end, have an attorney look at it to make sure you are achieving exactly what you sought to do," Benjamin says.

Remember you can get many simple legal forms for free from the State's Judicial website.The Virginia State Bar Association also offers lawyer referral services for 35 bucks. For more helpful tips visit the links below.

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