Online tools put will writing within reach of most people – but they’re not the end of the line

The promise of online wills is undeniable. Online programs offer people an easy way to write their will. Online templates can be completed anywhere, anytime. There are no office appointments, no prying 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’m a law professor who teaches wills and trusts, and I’m convinced that online wills are the wave of the future. I bought shares of online will preparation company LegalZoom when it debuted on the market. But, despite my enthusiasm (and hopefully a successful investment), online wills are not for everyone, nor are they suitable for all circumstances. Also, it is 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 enjoyable for people. Online wills are also important in terms of fairness and expediency. Up to 68% of Americans die without a will, and while the reasons for this incredibly high number vary, one factor is likely lack of access to legal services.

People considering making a will are understandably put off 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 offer basic will packages starting at around $90. Other websites, like Rocket Lawyer, offer free templates.

Online wills therefore have the potential to bring wills and estate planning to populations that would otherwise have no contact with legal services – assuming the person writing the will has a computer and Internet access. Similar tools for medical directives and living wills also make end-of-life preparations more accessible.

State law is the bottom line

Increased accessibility, however, is only part of the story. A fundamental problem with online wills is that they are only valid if 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 for determining whether or not a will has been validly executed. For the most part, these rules require that the will be written, signed and witnessed by two people.

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

Some states passed temporary emergency orders allowing e-wills during the early stages of the pandemic, but most states have yet to fully embrace e-wills or remote witnessing. When considering an online will, therefore, it is worth considering whether the program or template is state-specific and clearly explains what additional steps will be required to validly execute the will once the document is prepared online.

Cover assumptions

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

However, good writing is also about imagining worst-case scenarios, planning three steps in advance, and writing contingency plans in the document. Who owns that horrible landscape painting if Aunt Bridget is already dead when you die? Does Cousin Jamal get replacement value if the stock he was supposed to inherit was sold? What if the family members supposed to inherit most of the estate all die in an unexpected avalanche during a ski vacation?

Therefore, those looking for an online will should make sure that the online program offers a detailed questionnaire to guide them through the strange and sometimes horrifying world of unlikely but incredibly important scenarios.

Things can get complicated

Finally, although it may seem obvious, online will templates are best for simple estates. If you have real estate in more than one state, if you have a complicated family structure involving multiple marriages and multiple children, if you have a family business that will be passed on – in all of these situations, you might consider consulting an estate planner . This person can give you advice on how to handle those more legally complicated and financially sophisticated situations that online will templates aren’t necessarily set up to accommodate.

Ultimately, you may need to get up to have your will witnessed and you may need to leave your home to consult with 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 a law professor at the University of Richmond.

Melvin G. Rodriguez