Why Online Wills Are Growing in Popularity

How laws and consumers are adapting to online wills, and what to look for in the legal products. 

Vikram Barhat 19 January, 2023 | 4:28AM
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Financial planners at computers

The widespread chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic also created the opportunity to take a fresh look at traditional ways of doing things. Notably, it sparked innovation in sectors that were ripe for, but previously resistant to, disruption.

One such sector is the financial services industry – particularly as it pertains to estate planning. The tech innovation, fear of death and the prospect of virtual estate planning fuelled a sharp rise in online wills, also known as e-wills or digital wills.

Having a legally binding will can ensure your final wishes are conducted and your assets as passed onto your loved ones smoothly. However, the high costs and efforts required for end-of-life planning have discouraged many from writing a will.

All that has changed since the outbreak of COVID-19 forced people to think about their legacy. Moreover, widespread digital adoption and social distancing led to the higher adoption of online will services since they allowed people to create and execute a will from home, without having to visit a professional in person.

Now, two years since the COVID-19 outbreak, the growth in demand for online wills shows no signs of slowing.

Why Online Wills are Here to Stay

There’s no doubt the fear of death initially drove up the popularity of online wills. “When COVID-19 first hit in 2020, we saw a 600% increase in customers on Willful,” Erin Bury, co-founder and CEO at Willful, a Canadian online estate planning platform.

However, the popularity of online wills has continued to soar in the post-pandemic world. “We’ve seen interest in online wills sustain and grow over the past couple years as people have continued to embrace digital tools,” asserts Bury.

Wills aren’t just for older people, she reminds. They’re important for any adult to have in place. “COVID-19 reminded people that the unexpected can happen anytime, and that it’s important to have a will in place before it’s needed,” she says.

The global health crisis served as a catalyst for people to put emergency plans in place. “We’ve especially seen that younger people are creating wills at a faster rate,” says Bury, citing a Canadian study Wilful conducted in partnership with 1Password, which found that 34% (one-third) of millennials created their will during COVID-19.

Laws Adapting to Digital Wills

The pandemic sparked legislative changes in the U.S. and Canada since COVID-19 made it difficult to print and sign wills on paper and engage the help of a witness in person. “Several states and provinces including New York and Ontario allowed virtual witnessing of wills (via videoconference), and some jurisdictions implemented permanent legislation that allows for fully digital wills,” Bury notes.

In December 2021, for instance, British Columbia became the first jurisdiction in Canada to change its laws to allow fully digital wills. As of the end of 2022, online wills “are legal in B.C. and in Saskatchewan, but not in Ontario where wills must be executed on paper,” says Bury. 

Given that e-wills have been legalized in 12 U.S. states and more are considering them, it may be a matter of time before other Canadian provinces embrace them.

“Online wills will become more prevalent as time goes on, and I believe that in the future, the majority of wills will be created using online platforms instead of visiting a professional,” she says.

Benefits of Online Wills

There are specific benefits associated with online wills relative to paper wills. “They are more convenient, affordable, and accessible than traditional wills made with a professional,” says Bury.

While many online will writing services are available for under $100, a traditional paper will could cost thousands of dollars in lawyers and other legal fees. “Online wills can easily be changed and updated in future without having to pay an hourly rate to a professional,” Bury argues.

There is also the convenience factor as online wills “allow people to create a will at a time and place that’s convenient to them, without having to book in-person appointments,” says Bury.

Online platforms such as Willful and Trust & Will also have other features that help users draw up a comprehensive estate plan. These additional features could include creating power of attorney documents in case of medical emergencies, assistance in creating a list of assets and liabilities to share with the executor, outlining funeral and burial wishes, and notifying the people named in the will.

Are Online Wills for Everyone?

An online will makes sense for people who have a relatively simple situation and are seeking an affordable, easy online solution. “Think of it like TurboTax - you might use it for your taxes if you have a straightforward situation, and then upgrade to an accountant as your life gets more complex,” says Bury.

Online wills may not be the best choice for those with complex estate planning needs. “There are some situations online will platforms aren’t able to handle and, typically, you are also not receiving legal advice when you use an online will platform,” cautions Bury.

You may want to hire a lawyer if your estate plan requires personalized legal advice.

Key Elements of Online Wills to Look For

There are some crucial elements that an online will should contain to be effective and legally binding.

A will is a legal document that outlines three key decisions: who will act as your executor when you pass away; who will care for any minor children or pets; and who will get your assets. Those are the three most important decisions that a will should contain.

“For a will to be legal, it must follow provincial or state requirements,” says Bury. “For example, in Ontario it must be created by you in sound mind, and it must be signed by you in the presence of two witnesses who must also sign the will.”

There is no legal requirement, though, to have an attorney involved with creating or executing your will, she adds.

Some provinces now allow virtual witnessing - meaning that you can get together with your witnesses over videoconference instead of in person) - but most places still require in-person witnessing, warns Bury.

It’s imperative, therefore, to familiarize yourself with laws around witnessing and notarization in your jurisdiction and act accordingly. If local laws aren’t followed, the will may become invalid at the time of execution – so make sure it’s official before you make it count online.

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About Author

Vikram Barhat

Vikram Barhat  A Toronto-based financial writer specializing in investing, stock markets, personal finance and other areas of the financial services industry, Vikram also writes for CNBC, BBC, The Globe and Mail, and Toronto Star.

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