The Covid-19 pandemic has fueled a sharp rise in online wills.
Just after the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Boston-based online estate planning firm Gentreo saw a 143% week-over-week increase in people creating online wills, also known as e-wills or digital wills. Another online estate planning firm Trust & Will saw a 50% uptick in users.
The prospect of a life-threatening illness forced people to think about their legacy. Moreover, the pandemic accelerated the use of technology to minimize the need for in-person appointments to notarize a will.
A number of online estate planning start-ups quickly responded, offering users a quick way to draft a legally enforceable online will. Online wills are now legal in 12 states, and more states are likely to legalize them.
Gentreo, a Boston-based online estate planning platform, has seen continuous triple-digit growth in online wills year over year throughout the pandemic. “Due to the pandemic, most everyone now knows a family where someone passed away but did not have a will and consequences abounded,” says Renee Fry, founder and CEO at Gentreo.
“Many people thought the courts would just take care of everything and while that is the case, it means the courts and the state make decisions like who gets what,” she adds.
The appeal of online wills is undeniable. “Online wills can be completed virtually, avoiding the need to meet with a lawyer, witness, or notary in person,” says Leslie Tayne, founder of New York-based Tayne Law Group.
Low cost is another factor. An online will typically costs $20 to $100. In contrast, meeting with a lawyer to complete a paper will could cost anywhere between $1,500 and $3,000 and up, says Sarah Wentz, a lawyer with Fox Rothschild in Philadelphia.
In the past, there was some concern that online wills might not be legally binding. This is no longer the case in a dozen states. So long as the proper procedures are followed, an online will is as valid as a traditional will.
The Uniform Law Commission, a body that promotes uniformity in state laws, has provided a Uniform Electronic Wills Act (UEWA), legalizing online wills.
In 2020, Utah was the only state to have adopted the UEWA. Now 12 states have either implemented the Act or incorporated significant portions of it in their probate laws. These states include Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, Utah, Illinois, North Dakota, Washington, Colorado, Maryland, Idaho and Virginia.
Be warned. If you do an online will in a state that doesn’t recognize them, it may be equivalent to dying without a will. “You run the risk of dying intestate,” or without a valid will, say Cody Barbo, CEO and Co-Founder of San Diego-based Trust & Will.
Even in states where online wills are legal, there may be variations in laws to consider. “Each state is a little different, so one needs to make sure that they closely follow the laws in the state of residency during the execution of the documents,” says Wentz.
Digital wills are also attractive to those who need to create something quickly, conveniently, and inexpensively. They can be updated much more easily than traditional paper wills. Digitization of documents allows people to promptly update their wills “through life’s inflection points such as getting married, having a baby, or moving to a new state,” she adds.
Online wills won’t work for everyone. Individuals with more complex estate planning should work with an attorney.
“People with large estates need professional guidance and are better off hiring a lawyer to complete a will rather than going the DIY online route,” says Tayne. “It’s also important to work with an attorney if there’s a chance your will could be contested.”
There are several steps you can take to protect yourself if there is a legal problem down the road with your online will.
“The first thing to do is to make sure that you’re following the instructions provided by the online will maker,” says Fry, noting that a reliable provider gives you step-by-step instructions on how to make sure that your document is legal in your state.
“Once you have your documents, make sure that you share access to your documents because they’ll do your family no good if they can’t find them when they are needed,” Fry notes.
A respectable provider connects users to partner lawyers “at a discounted rate” should an issue arise concerning the will, she says, adding that her firm Gentreo offers access to attorneys across all 50 states for an hourly fee of $250.
A recent case involving diseased Hollywood actress Anne Heche’s estate highlights some of the potential legal issues that can arise from online wills. Heche’s dispute includes an alleged email serving as a will that stated the actress’s wishes should she die. The claim was disallowed as “California does not currently recognize electronic wills,” says Barbo, but adds that “an email would not be sufficient in most jurisdictions that recognize electronic wills.”
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