Online tools make will drafting accessible to most people – but they’re not the end of the line


The promise of online wills is undeniable. Online programs provide an easy way for people to write wills. Online templates can be completed anywhere, anytime. There are no office appointments, no indiscreet questions from a lawyer about who gets what. You don’t have to leave the house, and you don’t even have to get dressed.

I am a law professor who teaches wills and trusts, and I have no doubt that online wills are the wave of the future. I bought shares in the online will preparation company LegalZoom when it made its market debut. But, despite my enthusiasm (and hopefully a successful investment), online wills aren’t for everyone, nor are they suitable for all circumstances. Additionally, it’s important to remember that simply filling out an online form does not produce a legally binding will.

The great thing about online wills is the increased ease they offer, which is important in making will writing more acceptable to people. Online wills are also important in terms of fairness and timeliness. As much as 68% of Americans die without a will and, although the reasons vary for this surprisingly high number, one of the factors is probably the lack of access to legal services.

People who are considering writing a will are understandably discouraged by the daunting task of finding the right lawyer and the potential cost of the transaction. Online services like Legal Zoom, US Legal Wills and Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker & Trust clearly advertise the low cost of their services and offering basic packages for a will starting at around $ 90. Other websites, like Rocket Lawyer, advertise free will models.

Online wills therefore have the potential to bring wills and estate planning to populations who would otherwise not have contact with legal services – assuming the person making the will has access to a computer and the Internet. . Similar tools for medical directives and living wills also make end-of-life preparations more accessible.

State law is the bottom line

The increased accessibility, however, is only part of the story. A fundamental problem with online wills is that they are only valid if they are properly executed according to state probate rules. It is not enough to complete an online form to create a valid will. Each state has specific rules to determine whether or not a will has been validly executed. For the most part, these rules require that the will be written, signed and attested to by two people.

These requirements focus on physical documents and the physical presence of witnesses. The writing and signing requirements usually mean that a person must print the will online and sign a hard copy, and the testimony must also be done in person. States began to consider moving towards electronic wills, driven primarily by the new and demanding requirements of physical distancing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some states have adopted temporary emergency orders allowing e-wills during the early stages of the pandemic, but most states have yet to fully adopt e-wills or remote testimony. One thing to check, then, when reviewing a will online is whether the program or template is specific to the state and clearly explains what additional steps will be required to validly execute the will once the document was prepared online.

Cover assumptions

Another thing worth considering for those considering wills online is the type of quiz provided by the program. Estate planning, as I tell my students all the time, is about matching your affairs with the people you want to inherit.

But writing a good will also means imagining the worst scenarios, thinking three steps in advance and writing emergency plans in the document. Who gets this lousy landscape painting if Aunt Bridget is already dead when you die? Does cousin Jamal get replacement value if the stock he was supposed to receive by will were sold? What if the family members who were supposed to inherit most of the estate all die in an unexpected avalanche while on a ski vacation?

Therefore, those looking for a will online should make sure that the online program offers a detailed quiz to guide them through the strange and sometimes horrific world of unlikely but incredibly important “what if” scenarios.

Things can get complicated

Finally, although it may seem obvious, online will templates are best for simple estates. If you own real estate in more than one state, have a complicated family structure involving multiple marriages and sets of children, have a family business that will be passed on, in all of these situations you may want to consider consult an estate planner. This person can give you advice on how to deal with those more legally complex and financially sophisticated situations that online will templates are not necessarily designed to accommodate.

Ultimately, you may have to get up to have your will verified, and you may have to leave your home to consult a lawyer about complicated assets. But the good news is that with online will writing programs, you can do a lot of the prep work at home, drinking coffee in your pajamas.

Allison Anna Tate is Professor of Law at the University of Richmond.


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