Online will makers are everywhere you look these days. From FreeWill, Rocket Lawyer, Trust & Will and GivingDocs to the comprehensive LegacyPlanner, it feels like everyone is offering their own version. And sometimes it seems like they all just appeared overnight, too.
But the truth is, the industry has been around for decades — both US Legal Wills and LegalZoom had online versions more than 20 years ago. So, what’s to thank (or blame) for the sudden growth? Like back-to-back Zoom meetings, bad manners, and remote work, it can all be traced back to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
It’s easy to see why: Online will makers offered the perfect solution for people who wanted to get their affairs in order and create a legacy while sheltering in place. They didn’t need to leave home — or even get off the couch — to complete a simple, legally binding estate plan that protected their loved ones and outlined their final wishes.
The result was a massive spike in the number of folks inquiring about and completing estate plans. A 2020 story from ABC News quoted one online will platform as seeing a “143% increase week-over-week in people creating wills.” Others reported even higher numbers.
And even though the rapid pace at which people were creating estate plans slowed with the end of the pandemic, one fact is very clear: Online will planning is here to stay.
But that doesn’t mean everyone is on board with the concept. There’s a lot of debate in the industry over whether we should give donors the opportunity to draft a will using a DIY (do-it-yourself) approach.
Some fear there may be liability issues. Others worry it works against the interests of financial advisors and ruins relationships. And some lawyers, of course, claim online will planning is simply an ill-advised concept.
Just the Facts
Before we dig any further, let’s look at a few facts:
- Online will planning is a tried and trusted technology, not a trend. And it’s not complicated: Once an individual signs up, they create a secure, password-protected log in, and then answer a series of attorney-generated questions. They gather important financial documents, type in their relevant information, and voila! … the system generates a will. At the moment, just 12 states accept a will in digital form. In all others, a will must be printed and signed to be legal.
- Every online will maker works in essentially the same way to prepare a valid will — they have to, because they’re producing a legal document.
- Online will planners are designed for basic wills. They’re for the Average Jane or Joe; someone who has basic estate planning needs. They’re perfect for someone with a small family, average assets, and a straightforward estate that will likely not be contested by survivors.
- Online will planners are not designed for complicated estates. High-net-worth individuals, business owners, folks who wish to create joint wills, guardians who need property and asset management for special needs beneficiaries, owners of multiple properties or real estate in other states or countries, folks who need special estate tax advice, and essentially anyone who needs a legal document that goes beyond a basic will needs to hire an estate attorney.
- Online will planners have a proven track record of increasing the number of bequests a nonprofit receives.
- About 70% of Americans still lack a valid estate plan, despite the overall increase in will-making during Covid! (Here are some interesting statistics.) Among the most common excuses from the procrastinators are:
- “It’s too expensive to pay an attorney to draft a will.”
- “I’m young, there’s plenty of time.”
- “I don’t need a will because I don’t have any kids.”
- “I don’t need a will because I don’t make enough money.”
Why Online Will Planners Make $ense
So, should you have an online will planner on your planned giving website?
Raise your sensible hand if:
- You want to encourage people to consider making your organization the beneficiary of a legacy gift.
- You want to make legacy giving to you easy.
Assuming you raised your hand twice, you’ve answered the question. As previously noted, online will planning is here to stay. You’re either going to help facilitate your donor’s philanthropy, or you’re not. If you don’t, someone else will.
People are funny. If you don’t raise an issue, they’ll assume you know nothing about it. If they find information about wills and legacy giving on other organizations’ websites, but not yours, they’ll conclude those other organizations are set up to handle bequests whereas yours is not. Which is why talking to donors about including your organization as a beneficiary of their estate should be something you absolutely do.
Even before the advent of online wills, I’ve always felt encouraging donors to create a will is in the best interests of any nonprofit. After all, they can’t leave you a bequest without one. Whether they do that by hiring a lawyer or choosing a DIY approach is a deeply personal decision — and it’s not your job to take sides.
Your job is to raise the issue and offer donor-friendly choices. Offering an option to create a will, for free, from the comfort of their home, seems like a no-brainer. You can remind donors about the importance of shaping their legacy and protecting loved ones, and you can educate donors on best practices but, in the end, people will do what they want to do — and people overwhelmingly want the simplicity and efficiency of an online will.
When the will maker is on your trusted nonprofit’s website, that makes it easier (and more likely) for your donors to support you with a gift. And when the planner is integrated into the architecture of your website and you’re your individual nonprofit’s branding, like LegacyPlanner™, it keeps your organization top-of-mind and positions you for success.
Your Next Steps
Keeping in mind the fact online will planners increase the number of bequests and other planned legacy gifts nonprofits receive, you’ll want to create a plan to reap the rewards of raising this issue and making it easy for your donors to follow through.
There may, however, be obstacles in your way. Your leaders may be among those still leery of offering this service, despite improvements in security or increases in legacy gifts. And you’ll still likely have donors with complex estates that require the services of an attorney.
In these cases, you can still raise the issue and help facilitate your donor’s philanthropy in other ways.
That’s why PlannedGiving.com developed LegacyOrganizer. The Organizer doesn’t produce a will — rather, it helps you gather and organize everything an attorney needs to draft the document. And like the LegacyPlanner, the Organizer keeps your nonprofit top of mind while also creating opportunities to discuss planned legacy gifts with your supporters. After they’ve completed filling out their information in the LegacyOrganizer, donors can take the printed product to an estate attorney to complete the process. It’s an easy, effective way to capture donor attention — without offering a digital will option.
The simple fact is, more Americans are choosing to create estate plans using programs that help them create simple, legal wills online from the comfort of their homes. And it’s an option that’s only going to grow in popularity: the demand is high, the technology is solid, and the 21st Century is the Digital Century.
Those nonprofits that are embracing the trend are seeing an increase in the number of bequests and other planned legacy gifts from their donors.
Those that aren’t are already missing out, and the gap is only going to widen the longer they wait.
Today’s guest contributor, Viken Mikaelian, is the CEO and founder of PlannedGiving.com and MajorGifts.com. He is also publisher of Major Gifts Today and Giving Tomorrow. Viken is available for speaking engagements on planned giving marketing, personal development and time management at viken.net. Learn how Viken got into planned giving. Connect with Viken on LinkedIn.
Image: Three San Francisco Hearts: Celebration; Life-Saving Heart; Meet in the Presidio — benefit for San Francisco General Hospital Foundation.