For The Record

Photo illustration by Gordon Schmidt

Online tools for will-writing might not produce a legally binding document, cautions Allison Tait, professor and associate dean.

The promise of online wills is undeniable. They offer people an easy way to write their wills, with no office appointment and no indiscreet questions from a lawyer about who is getting what. You don’t have to leave home and you don’t even have to get dressed.

I have no doubt that online wills are the wave of the future. But, despite my enthusiasm (and hopefully successful investment), online wills aren’t right for everyone, nor are they appropriate in all circumstances.

What’s great about online wills is the increased ease, which makes will-writing more palatable. They are also important in terms of equity and opportunity: As many as 68% of Americans die without a will and, while the reasons vary, one factor is likely lack of access to legal services.

Online services such as LegalZoom, US Legal Wills, and Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker & Trust offer packages starting at around $90. Other websites, such as Rocket Lawyer, advertise free will templates. Similar tools for medical directives and living wills make end-of-life preparations more accessible as well.

However, simply filling out an online form doesn’t produce a legally binding will. Each state has specific rules about this; most often, they require that the will be in writing, signed, and witnessed by two people. This generally means that a person must print out the will and sign a hard copy, and the witnessing needs to be done in person. States have begun to move away from this physical witnessing requirement, spurred on by the physical distancing brought on by COVID-19, but most have yet to fully adopt electronic wills or remote witnessing. Something to check, then, is whether the program or template clearly explains the steps needed to validly execute the will in your state.

Something else worth investigating is what kind of questionnaire the program provides. Estate planning, as I tell my students, is about matching up your things with the people you want to inherit them. It is also about imagining worst-case scenarios and writing contingency plans into the document. Who gets that ugly landscape painting if Aunt Bridget is already dead when you die? Does Cousin Jamal get any replacement value if the stock he was supposed to inherit was sold? Make sure that the online program offers a detailed questionnaire to guide you through the “what-if” scenarios.

Finally, online will templates are best for simple estates. If you have real property in more than one state, if you have a complicated family involving multiple marriages and sets of children, or if you have a business that will be passed down, consider consulting an estate planner.

Ultimately, then, you may need to get out of bed to have your will witnessed, and you may need to leave your house to consult a lawyer about complicated assets. But the good news is that you can do a lot of the groundwork at home, drinking coffee in your pajamas.