Online Wills; have your say…

65% of UK consumers who believe their affairs are simple, actually have much more complex needs when it comes to their Will according to research published this week.

“Online Wills: Are they worth the paper they’re not written on” was authored by Simon Cox, co founder of Funeral Solution Expert, and explores the suitability of Wills which have been written using online services.

The research explores three main types of online will writing service:

  • Once and done: better identified as an online DIY will with little to no manual intervention.
  • Guided Journey: An online prequalification with questions or affirmative statements to determine if a “simple will” is suitable or not.
  • Two Step: A pre-qualification process like ‘once and done’ approach, with the second step either behind a pay wall or with a follow up call to clarify points often validating whether a simple or more complex solution is needed.

The research highlights that pre-qualification for many online providers failed to fully consider all the factors which might make an individual’s needs “complex.” The subsequent Will does not fully account for complex needs such as marital status, children, assets, business and property ownership, overseas property investments and disinheritance.

It concludes that there will be a rise in contentious probate a result of Wills which may not provide enough protection for the testator or testatrix.

Responding to the research we have collated comments from around this industry on the rise of Online Wills.

We turn first to Farewill, who launched in 2015 as a provider of online Wills. Commenting on the research, Head of Legal, Lorraine Robinson TEP, says:

“At Farewill we’ve long recognised, and campaigned for, gaps in consumer protection to customers of unregulated firms, many of whom operate online, to be closed. As such, we’re pleased that the Legal Services Board are intending in their 2021-22 business plan to draw on recommendations we called for as part of the Independent Review of Legal Regulation, including minimum levels of indemnity cover, and access to the Legal Ombudsman for customers.”

Calls for greater protection aside though, Robinson would question the veracity of claims that there is a bank of ‘online wills’ due to be contested, and implications the risk is posed solely by the unregulated sector.

“Previous, more comprehensive research studies have looked at will writing services by both regulated and unregulated providers. Unfortunately, similar levels of quality failures were found across regulated and unregulated providers. This calls into question what qualifications we’re championing in the preparation of wills. As a solicitor myself, unfortunately qualification as a solicitor is not a guarantee of an individual solicitor or a regulated firm’s depth of understanding of a specialist area of law. For that, as an industry, we often look instead to qualifications such as those offered by STEP, which are open to regulated and unregulated professionals alike.”

“Many businesses in the unregulated sector are members of voluntary organisations too, which prescribe minimum levels of indemnity cover. To suggest all unregulated will writers are uninsured undermines the diligence and responsibility of many in the sector”.

Clive Ponder set up Countrywide Tax and Trust Corporation (now CTT Group) over 15 years ago.

“At CTTC Ltd, none of the circa 2500 wills we draft for clients every week are prepared ‘online’ – advisors take instructions from clients and provide advice as part of the process.”

“That said, I believe we in the instruction taking division of the industry are actually pushing people towards online service providers because of our refusal to try and improve the service clients now demand and expect. Our current instruction taking system needs to speed up considerably and reduce risk. For instance, templated wills are still widely in use across the industry, but it is my belief that templated documents are far more risky than allowing clients to prepare wills online and unassisted. Our Estate Planning Team review hundreds of existing clients wills every week as part of our free Will Review service, and there are drafting issues with a significant proportion of these. The remainder perhaps don’t do what the client intended and they may not have even realised that, often due to the antiquated language used in the drafting. Many of those we review are actually invalid due to errors made in the execution of the documents, which clients find unnecessarily complicated. Clients cannot understand why Wills are being made in accordance with nearly 200 year old law that seems so difficult to comply with and contrasts significantly with the ‘modern’ way of doing things.”

WillSuite’s Seb Shakh makes the distinction between DIY will writing, either online or on paper, and an online journey which is complemented by a face to face, video or telephone appraisal;

“Although one aspect of our software does encompass online instructions (under our Love Legal brand), we do agree with many of the comments regarding the suitability of an online Will but stand by our view that a self-created DIY Will in most cases will have a better outcome than no will at all.”

“Having a Will (regardless of complexity) will mean that a testator has the ability to share their wishes as to what they want to happen to their assets. Simon makes an interesting point though that 65% of well meaning testators believe they have a simple estate (their research) but a good system (like Love Legal) will enable the firm to understand more about the client’s circumstances and where more comprehensive planning is needed.”

“We certainly build flags in for our clients through tailorable questions to ensure that clients get documents that suit their needs. What is important is that clients are sign-posted to proper advice where it’s needed but improper questioning may very well lead to a rise in contentious probate.”

“Presently, an online offering can complement a face-to-face service but it would be a shame to ignore clients who believe they have simple estates because a firm won’t offer an online ‘instruction tool’.”

Clive Ponder concludes that the industry must embrace the opportunity to change and adapt to a more digital way of delivering willwriting services.

“If the industry wants to reduce the number of people migrating to online services to allow them to write wills at their own convenience, the industry needs to be more open to adopting change and look to use methods of working that focus on the client journey, allowing for a better, more efficient and cheaper service. In making these comments I refer to both the regulated and non regulated sector – both face significant challenges and neither appreciates the gravity of the situation faced by the industry as a whole. ”

“One of the comments highlighted in the research is that clients do not understand the difference between simple and complex wills. I have taken instructions from clients for 25 years and I would agree wholeheartedly with that statement. Many clients have relatively straightforward estates but their requirements can only be met using Trusts, for example as a result of a complex family structure. The industry would no doubt categorise Trusts as complex, although I would argue trying to produce residue clauses with multiple layers is far more so.”

“Instead of trying to stop progress, the industry’s time and resources would be best used to carefully consider the present issues and rise to the challenge that clients have set. It is incumbent on us all to improve the service that we offer to clients and encourage them to take advice in these areas, which continue to grow in importance.”

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