Online Legal Documents Company Sued Over Flawed Estate Plan

June 18, 2010

LegalZoom, one of the most prominent sellers of do-it-yourself wills and other estate planning documents, is the target of a class action lawsuit in California charging that the company engages in deceptive business practices and is practicing law without a license.

The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on May 27, 2010, by Katherine Webster, who is the niece of the late Anthony J. Ferrantino and the executor of Mr. Ferrantino’s estate.

Knowing that he had only a few months to live, Mr. Ferrantino asked Ms. Webster in July 2007 to help him use LegalZoom to execute a will and living trust. Based on LegalZoom’s advertising, Ms. Webster says she believed that the documents they created would be legally binding and that if they encountered any problems, the company’s customer service department would resolve them.

But after the living trust documents were created and signed, Ms. Webster could not transfer any of her uncle’s assets into the trust because the financial institutions that held his money refused to accept the LegalZoom documents as valid. Ms. Webster tried to get help from LegalZoom, with no success. The trust was still not funded when Mr. Ferrantino died in November 2007.

Ms. Webster was forced to hire an estate planning attorney, who petitioned the court to allow the post-death funding of the trust. The attorney then had to convince the banks to transfer the funds — a more difficult task following Mr. Ferrantino’s death. The attorney also discovered that the will LegalZoom created for Mr. Ferrantino had not been properly witnessed. All this cost Mr. Ferrantino’s estate thousands of dollars.

The lawsuit claims that Ms. Webster and others like her relied on misleading statements by LegalZoom, including that LegalZoom carefully reviews customer documents, that it guarantees its customers 100 percent satisfaction with its services, that its documents are the same quality as those prepared by an attorney, and that the documents are effective and dependable.

“Nowhere in the [company’s] manual do defendants explain that using LegalZoom is not the same as using an attorney and that its documents are only ‘customized’ to the extent that the LegalZoom computer program inputs your name and identifying information, but not tailored to your specific circumstances,” the lawsuit states, adding that “the customer service representatives are not lawyers and cannot by law provide legal advice.”

Ms. Webster is suing not only on her behalf but on behalf of anyone in California who paid LegalZoom for a living trust, will, living will, advance health care directive or power of attorney. The lawsuit estimates this class embraces more than 3,000 individuals.

“LegalZoom’s business is based on nurturing the false sense of security that people do not need to hire a traditional attorney,” says San Francisco attorney Robert Arns, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit. “The complaint points out that LegalZoom advertises that you don’t need a real attorney because its work is legally binding and reliable. That’s misleading. Improperly prepared estate planning documents are a ticking time bomb that can result in improper tax consequences and other items that could cost the estate and heirs huge sums.”

“LegalZoom preys on people when they’re at their most vulnerable, when they are of advanced age or poor health and need a will or a living trust,” adds San Francisco elder abuse attorney Kathryn Stebner, Ms. Webster’s lead counsel.

One of the defendants named in the suit is LegalZoom co-founder Robert Shapiro, who appears on the LegalZoom Web page and TV ads and who is best-known for being one of O.J. Simpsons attorneys.

This is not the first suit against LegalZoom. In December 2009, a Missouri man who paid LegalZoom to prepare his will sued the company for engaging in the unauthorized practice of law (Janson v. LegalZoom). The lawsuit is also seeking class action status. LegalZoom is trying to have the case removed from Missouri state court to the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

Getting Social Security While Living Overseas

June 9, 2010

Many retirees look forward to traveling in their retirement, and more and more are actually retiring overseas, in part as a way to stretch savings. But what happens to retirees’ federal benefits while they are out of the country? The short answer is that although Social Security benefits are available to retirees in other countries, Medicare is not. In this installment we look at Social Security.

As is not the case with Medicare, retirees who decide to move to another country are still entitled to Social Security benefits. Once a retiree has been outside the country for 30 days in a row, he or she is considered outside the United States and the rules for collecting benefits apply.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) will send checks to anyone who is eligible for benefits and is living abroad. However, there are a few countries where the SSA is not allowed to send checks. Retirees who move to Cuba or North Korea cannot receive any checks while they are in either country, but they can get any withheld checks if they go to a country where paychecks can be sent. In addition, the SSA generally does not send Social Security checks to Cambodia, Vietnam, or areas that were in the former Soviet Union (other than Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia), but retirees may be able to apply for an exception. In such cases, retirees may have to agree to certain conditions, such as appearing in person at the U.S. embassy each month, to receive benefits.

Retirees who are U.S. citizens are entitled to continue receiving benefits for as long as they live outside the United States. However, citizens of other countries who receive Social Security may have some restrictions on how long they can receive benefits while outside the United States. The rules are quite complicated; the Social Security publication Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States explains in detail what restrictions citizens of individual countries are subject to. The SSA Web site also offers beneficiaries a payment screening tool that tells them whether they will be entitled to benefits if they remain outside the country for more than six months.

Retirees may have their checks directly deposited into a bank account in the United States, and direct deposit is available in some other countries as well. Using direct deposit avoids check-cashing and currency-conversion fees.

In countries with a large number of U.S. retirees, American embassies and consulates have individuals who are trained to provide Social Security services, including taking applications. The countries are: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Ireland, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Korea, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Yemen. Individuals in other countries need to contact the SSA in writing or by phone. For a list of phone numbers, visit the SSA’s Web page

The taxes on overseas Social Security benefits are the same as taxes on benefits for retirees living in the United States. Retirees who file individual tax returns and earn between $25,000 and $34,000 may have to pay taxes on up to 50 percent of benefits. Retirees with income over $34,000 may have to pay taxes on 85 percent of benefits. Retirees who file a joint tax return and have a combined income of between $32,000 and $44,000 may have to pay taxes on 50 percent of their benefits. Joint filers with a combined income of more than $44,000, may have to pay taxes on 85 percent of their benefits. Combined income is the retiree’s adjusted gross income plus nontaxable interest plus one-half of the retiree’s Social Security benefits.

In addition to U.S. taxes, some foreign countries may tax benefits as well. To find out whether a country imposes taxes on Social Security benefits, contact the country’s embassy in the United States.

The SSA Web site provides information and resources on its International Programs home page for retirees who are moving outside of the United States.

What About SSI?

The rules for receiving Social Security overseas do not apply to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Most recipients of SSI are not entitled to benefits outside the United States. SSI benefits will stop if a recipient is outside the United States for more than 30 days, and benefits won’t start up again until the recipient is back in the country for at least 30 days. However, there are exceptions for dependent children of military personnel and students studying abroad.

To discuss Social Security or other Elder Law matters with an attorney, please email the Elder Law Center or call 630-844-0065. The Elder Law Center is located in Aurora, IL, Kane County, in the Chicago Western Suburbs.

Report Looks at What People Are Paying for Long-Term Care Insurance

June 8, 2010

More than a third (35.4 percent) of individuals who recently purchased long-term care insurance are paying less than $1,499 a year for the coverage, according to a new report by the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance, an industry trade organization.

The organization analyzed data on some 93,500 new long-term care insurance buyers. Age at the time of application plays an important role in determining the cost for long-term care insurance, the study reports. While 41.5 percent of buyers under age 61 pay between $500 and $1,499-per-year, only 20.8 percent of buyers who are ages 61-to-75 pay within this range. About one in 10 of all buyers (9.5 percent) are paying $4,000 or more yearly for their insurance, the report indicates.

“Individuals mistakenly have been led to believe that long-term care insurance costs thousands of dollars,” says Jesse Slome, the Association’s executive director. “A significant number of individuals today pay between $10 and $20 a week. That’s a highly affordable way to protect $150,000 to $250,000 of future care.” Slome notes that buyers in their 50s will be more likely to qualify for health discounts.

For more details, including tips for saving money when buying long-term care insurance, click here.