The scourge of the online Will kit

Here’s the problem; everybody needs a Will, but lawyers are too expensive and inconvenient. As a result 65 percent of people don’t have a Will. To address this issue, countless “downloadable Will forms” proliferate across the internet. People use these forms and their loved ones end up with a mountain of trouble.

Let’s explore the evidence;

Are lawyers really too expensive or inconvenient? According to the customers who come to LegalWills, yes, absolutely. They are being quoted anything up to $1200 or £800 for a simple Last Will and Testament, but more commonly it is in the region of $600 or £400. The more significant problem is that updates are being charged anything up to $100 or £50 per change. There is also a gap between what lawyers think people can pay, and what people are prepared to pay. I read this recently on a legal blog, written by an estate planning lawyer

At least once a week I get a call from a potential client. The question is always the same: “How much does X document cost?” This is always a perplexing question. Usually the answer is “I don’t know.”

I know of an attorney who agrees to quote the client a price over the phone if they can answer one simple question: “What color tie am I wearing today?” …This lawyer knows that people will protest- “how can I know what color tie you are wearing if I am not there?” The lawyer then points out (if the client has not gotten it already) that both questions are similar.

So here’s the disconnect; the lawyer thinks he is clever and the client is a bit dim. The prospective client on the other hand wants to know whether they should include in their household budget some money to prepare a Last Will and Testament. In order to do this, they need to get a feel for how much it will cost. I cannot think of any other situation where you would blindly procure a service, hand over your wallet and ask the service provider to charge you whatever they want (veterinarians and dentists aside!).

So most people end up without a Last Will and Testament in place, and of those that do, most are not kept up to date. So we find service providers offering a “downloadable Will” sometimes free of charge. I saw a new one just last week – I have embedded a screenshot of the body of it here. Last Will and TestamentThey have tried to convey some authenticity with some calligraphy at the top and an impenetrable legal sentence to kick off the document

 

I JOHN DOE KNOW ALL PERSONS BY THESE PRESENTS:

 

But the meat of the document comes in article IV, where you are given space to explain how you would like your estate to be distributed. Personally, I feel that this document should be illegal; it is preying on people who don’t want to pay for legal advice and who are trusting this company to provide them with a legally binding document. But it is nothing short of impossible to complete a satisfactory Will using a blank page like this. You need to create alternate plans, trusts, Executor powers, residual plans and without these you end up with an estate like Ann Aldrich who used E-Z Legal Forms to prepare her Will. She listed out her possessions and instructed all of these things to go to her beneficiary. Unfortunately she didn’t explain what should happen to everything else. The result was a family battle over her estate and a judgement that included this warning “I therefore take this opportunity to highlight a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms”

Fortunately, there is a very large middle ground between expensive lawyers and dangerous blank forms, and this is being filled by interactive services like the ones at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com. These services guide you through the process with a series of questions, and then verifies that you have covered all scenarios. It only allows you to do things that your jurisdiction permits, and double checks for things like minor children having guardians and trusts set up appropriately. Clearly some people still need expensive legal advice and custom clauses to be written, but services like this work for the vast majority. So much so, that when a recent study from Oxford University listed the most likely jobs to be replaced by technology, paralegals were 4th on the list with a 94% probability of being replaced by software. Most people who have a Will written by a legal professional have their information typed into software and their Will generated from templates (the staff in the office usually do it), but online services like LegalWills are granting access to those tools directly to the consumer.

People are not likely to use a lawyer who refuses to tell them how much they will charge. But we are hoping that we can steer people away from blank form kits.

 

Should Will Kits be banned?

You will often hear legal professionals talking about the dangers of writing your own Will, and we regularly defend an individual’s right to prepare their own legal documents if they are given the right tools to do so. But we mustn’t confuse the right to prepare one’s Will, with the use of a blank-form, do-it-yourself kit. We firmly believe that using a downloadable blank form is dangerous, and we would even go as far as to say, it should be illegal.

We have previously discussed our concern with Will kits; the form-based, downloadable, fill-in-the-blanks type kits. Our main reservations with these kits include;

  1. They place too much onus on the end user to put in the correct information
  2. They are not customized to local jurisdictions
  3. There is no check to ensure that everything written in the blank spaces is legal
  4. There is no check that all scenarios and all alternate plans are include
  5. There is no way for the end user to know if they have a legal Will once the form has been completed
blank form

Blank form kit…good luck!

We recently received an email from a prospective customer asking us why our service cost money, when they could download a free kit from the internet, so we took a look specifically at the kit they were considering; it shocked us.

The kit had a banner at the top calling it “Legal Canadian Will Kit documents” . The user was then prompted to enter their name, the name of their Executor, Alternate Executor, and Guardians for children. It was followed by a blank page, with the subheading “I REQUEST that my Guardian(s)…”, with a signature page stating that the Will is on this page and the preceding pages. A little odd, because the signature page was then followed by a page describing the distribution of assets. This means that the distribution of the assets was not even in the Will !!

To top it off, the page after that was blank with the subheading “I give my Executor the following powers…”

I defy any member of the general public to correctly express a number of clauses for Executor powers – really, what on earth is a person supposed to include here? To give you some context, a Will created using our service includes thirteen clauses outlining the Executor powers and some are complicated.

The concern here is that this blank form would not be admissible in a court of law. It simply would not work. Presumably, the document is being downloaded on a regular basis by unwitting customers who are trying to save some legal fees. But surely there needs to be some level of accreditation or governance before a website can mislead so many people, so dangerously.

At LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com we have to somehow differentiate our service from the cheap or free downloadable kits. Our services are fully interactive, developed by estate planning lawyers in each jurisdiction and provide help every step of the way. For example, if you have minor children (the definition of which varies across jurisdictions), our services will prompt you to set up a trust for those children (a section completely missing from the kit we sampled). In our 13 years of service we have had countless Wills pass through the probate process, and never once has one of our Wills had an issue.

We believe that most people do not have to pay expensive legal fees to prepare their own Will, but we also believe that the downloadable blank forms need to be regulated or banned outright. We would recommend that people try our service, and compare it to a blank kit, then decide.

Can you break the service at LegalWills?

It is not surprising that we have critics of our service; after all, we are offering a convenient, educational tool, that allows you to write a Will, Power of Attorney and Living Will. We allow you to make unlimited updates to your documents for a tiny fraction of the cost of going to a legal professional and in most cases, the final document looks identical to one costing ten times as much. One of the criticisms of the service is that you can go wrong and create a Will that doesn’t make sense. I would like to address this criticism head-0n.

We actually raise the very same concern with the blank form kits that you can buy from a bookstore. These kits consist of blank pieces of paper, with a guidebook that tells you how to write a Will. We’ve addressed the issue of these blank form kits in a previous blog post, and they are a terrible idea. It is almost impossible to write a well drafted Will using a kit; you have to cover alternate scenarios, include appropriate Executor clauses, only doing things that are legally permitted, and the kit must be tailored to your local jurisdiction. Our service on the other hand, interactively guides you through the process, offering help along the way, and restricts inputs based on your family situation, legal jurisdiction, and the law.

I had a conversation recently with somebody who was concerned that they were permitted to put bad answers in for questions; for example, they named a charity that did not have charitable status, but were not given a warning. They also named an Executor who was not living in the same jurisdiction, but were not warned that this was not advisable. Information about both of these issues is actually covered in the online help, but there is no hardcoded restriction in entering poor choices.

I feel it’s worth explaining our position though with respect to allowing people to enter bad answers;

  • The service is available as a tool to prepare one’s own Will. Just like using online tax preparation software, it does rely on you entering the correct information. If you have three children but claim to have two, we do not check that (but neither do most legal professionals).
  • We do provide information in the accompanying pop-up help text, available on every page. We encourage people to read this text, but we do not force people to read it, otherwise the interaction with our service would be painful.
  • We cannot give specific advice for specific individuals; this would be offering legal advice which we are not permitted to do. We can only give general guidance, so we are not allowed to check everybody’s specific answers to every question.
  • Sadly, the vast majority of people do not have a Will. We have created a service that allows people to finally stop procrastinating and make sure that their family and loved ones are taken care of. It does however require some common sense to use it.

It really isn’t difficult to prepare one’s own Will which is why the services at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com are becoming increasingly popular. You can create a nonsense Will if that is your intent, however, you can also create a completely legal Last Will and Testament, and learn a little about the process along the way.

Free Last Will and Testament forms

We’ve seen a number of these recently; the “free” or the $5 Last Will and Testament. In fact, I’ll offer you one right here; a Free Last Will and Testament form . But be warned, it’s an absolute piece of garbage and will probably cause more problems for your family and loved ones than not creating one at all.

The market is becoming crowded for online Will services.

At www.legalwills.ca , www.uslegalwills.com and www.legalwills.co.uk we charge $34.95 and  £24.95. We do this because we have worked with top legal teams in Canada, the US and UK to create our services. We have a support team in place who can help users step through the process and we have professional affiliations. We also stand by our services as top quality, legal, affordable alternatives to seeking legal advice. We know that our service is not appropriate for everybody, and we often recommend that some people with complicated situations not use our service and instead seek legal advice.

So what does a $5 Last Will and Testament give you? Some websites operate like the Giant Tiger of legal forms; they have hundreds or thousands of downloadable PDF’s which probably will not work for you; there will be no alternate provisions, help text, support, residual beneficiaries, minor trusts, and it is quite possible that you will write something in your Will that is simply not legally permitted e.g. disinheriting dependents. But a $5 Will company does not care about this.

I’m actually surprised by the quality of many online sites that claim to have been created by lawyers. They obviously have no concerns that a large number of people will use their service thinking that they have a legal Will, when many will be legally invalid. I’m not sure how the law societies will feel about the quality of product being created by these lawyers. Sadly, we cannot compete on price with a downloadable pdf form. But we do feel good about our service and know that quality legal documents have been created by tens of thousands of people.

Many articles talk about the dangers of preparing your own Will, and it is really the cheap, daily discount Wills that are being dismissed in these articles. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to discern a quality online service and a poor one. Look for services that are interactive (not downloadable blank forms), have been in place for a while, have online help with phone and email support, and a service that generates a final document that runs at least 4-5 pages. If it doesn’t, then it has not included all of the clauses that should be in a basic Will. I wish I could just list services that you should not use, but that is probably a bad idea.

What to look for in an online Will provider

So, you have decided that you have a simple family situation and that paying for professional legal advice may be overkill for your needs. You understand that it’s important to have a Will, and you feel comfortable using an online service to create it. However, there seem to be a few of them around, so how do you choose the best service for your needs? I’d like to provide a few pointers.

First of all you need to look at the company itself; how long has it been around? has it established any credibility? is it accredited by agencies like the Better Business Bureau? do the testimonials on the site seem genuine?

Then look at the initial interaction with the site; does it ask for your email address before you can do anything? this may be a red flag.

But the most important element to an online service is that it is truly interactive and that it allows you to create a legally binding Will that is not likely to be challenged once you have passed away. We have cautioned many times against the use of blank forms because there is no guidance in these kits. You may think that you’ve created a legal Will but it may be completely unenforceable in your jurisdiction. You need to be very wary of services that look interactive, but in reality they just complete a form based on your information with absolutely no intelligence.

I stepped through an online service this morning and the end product was this;

The unenforceable Will

The service now states at the top that I am “just a few moments away from completing your Will” all I have to do now is pay. But here’s the scary thing; I told the service that I am married with a young child, but the service has allowed me to inadvertently disinherit my entire family. I haven’t set up a trust for any minor children, in fact, I haven’t even named a guardian. There was no help along the way to tell me what I can and cannot do and once I pass away this “Will”is an utterly worthless piece of paper because it is entirely unenforceable. This online service has offered me no more than the blank form Will kits that we despise.

What you should be looking for in an online service is one that guides you through the process and offers you online help explaining what you can and cannot do. This service for example asked “are you married yes/no” without explaining the nuanced situation of separation in Canada. Many people will make a critical mistake on the very first question!

Ideally you need a service that will ask you to enter information like the age of your children and then prompt you to create a trust. You also should look for a service that will warn you if you are about to do something that will lead to a legal challenge or make your Will unenforceable.

Warning message at LegalWills

You also need to look for a service that supports what you want to actually do; for example, naming joint Executors, or setting up a trust for your child that allows funds to be distributed at different ages, for example, a third at 21, a third at 23 and the rest at 30.

Try to find a service that allows you to make changes or updates if you realise afterwards that you have forgotten something. You should be able to do this for an extended period of time without penalty (at LegalWills we give you a year).

Also look for service providers that offer live support over the phone or by email, and only use a service that offers a full money back guarantee if you don’t like the look of your final document.

At LegalWills we worry about the standard of many online service providers, but all we can do is provide some suggestions for how you may be able to tell the difference between a good service and a poor one.