5 minute read

eWills: Navigating Estate Planning from Anywhere in the World

During the 2020 pandemic, many faced challenges with traditional estate planning. Learn how eWills emerged as a convenient alternative and why they’re here to stay.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

The COVID-19 pandemic (2019 - 2023) was a historic time for modern society. Amidst lockdowns and social distancing, individuals found themselves at home around the clock, whether it be with family, housemates, or alone. Save for necessary outings, all personal and business affairs were to be conducted at home. The whole nation had no other option to adapt, and quickly. If you’re reading this guide, you likely lived what this was like. Amongst numerous challenges came opportunities to use technology in creative ways to stay connected. This was a time when traditional estate planning was disrupted and remote estate planning emerged. Keep reading to find out how eWills became popular during the COVID-19 pandemic and why they’re here to stay.

The impact of the pandemic on estate planning

When the world shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, countless industries were impacted. Those that dwell in the digital world soared, while those that were rooted in traditional mediums were forced to adapt quickly to avoid floundering.

The estate planning industry was no exception and faced many challenges. It is common practice for legal documents to be executed physically on paper, including estate planning documents such as a Last Will and Testament and Power of Attorney. This is because the legal system typically requires legal documents to be filed physically, and must be signed with wet signatures. When it comes to probate law, states also require some sort of witnessing and/or notarization. 

These outdated processes created a challenging intersection with the pandemic, a time when individuals could not leave their homes. 

Here are some of the key impacts the pandemic had on estate planning:

  • Individuals were reminded of the importance of planning for the unexpected. When serious illness became widespread, it naturally motivated individuals to put a Will into place.

  • Lockdown mandates and social distancing measures made it difficult, or even impossible, to conduct estate planning activities such as meeting with attorneys or financial advisors, gathering with witnesses, or visiting a notary office. Patients who found themselves in isolation at a hospital would have found it even more challenging to set up an estate plan, even if they developed a sense of urgency to execute a Will and/or Trust.

  • While some individuals had an easier time adopting technologies to overcome challenges, others either did not have access or were not properly trained to utilize tools.

  • Financial and future uncertainties directly impacted estate planning strategies. Some may have experienced a direct loss of assets, or acquired new assets for extra protection, both of which require an update to distribution plans.

  • The increased workload on healthcare systems may have delayed the processing of legal documents such as Living Wills or Healthcare Proxies.

  • Court processes were delayed, meaning that loved ones had to wait longer to receive inheritances through probate.

Due to these impacts and challenges, eWills and other digital estate planning quickly emerged as a safe and convenient solution.

EWills: the safe and convenient solution for remote estate planning

While the pandemic certainly created numerous challenges for estate planning, it also brought about some exciting possibilities. Namely, eWills and remote estate planning quickly emerged as a secure and convenient alternative to traditional estate planning.

The technologies that make the execution of eWills are not new. We will touch on these technologies in the next section. However, laws at the time did not permit these technologies that would make an eWill legally valid. 

Lawmakers quickly realized that a hospitalized person could not pay a visit to their estate planning attorney. An alternative solution had to be made possible during this time of crisis. Lawmakers in many states signed executive orders to temporarily relax rules surrounding the requirements of a Will, making it less likely for a Will to be rejected on a technicality. For example, states could suspend the rules at the time in order to permit remote witnessing.

Thanks to these changes, albeit temporary, individuals could create eWills that would be recognized as legally valid. Remote estate planning offered a safe and convenient solution during a time when traditional estate planning posed health risks and other challenges.

The role of technology in facilitating seamless estate planning

Technology plays a large role in facilitating remote estate planning that is seamless and convenient. 

Here is an overview of the technologies that make an eWill possible:

1. Online document creation: Technology has made it possible to generate legal documents remotely. For example, online estate planning platform Trust & Will guides users through the process of creating essential documents like Wills, Trusts, and advance healthcare directives. Users simply input their details and preferences when asked a series of prompts and questions, and the platform generates a legally valid document.

2. Video conferencing: When social distancing measures were in place, in-person meetings became challenging. Video conferencing services make remote meetings possible, thanks to built-in cameras and microphones in most devices today. This means that a Testator can video conference with their witnesses and notary if needed, so long as their state permits video conferencing technology for the execution of a Will.

3. Digital signatures: Signatures created digitally became popular during the 1980s, and even more so in 2000 when the E-Sign Act made them legally binding. The adoption of electronic signatures in legal and business processes became widespread during the pandemic, even for items that traditionally required a wet ink signature. Many jurisdictions recognized the validity of electronic signatures for estate planning documents, streamlining the signing process for individuals and ensuring the legal enforceability of their eWills.

4. Remote notarization: In many states, you have the option of notarizing your Will to make it self-proving. During the pandemic, remote notarization was permitted (through the use of video conferencing and digital signatures) and thus making this piece of the puzzle possible. In 2020, Trust & Will partnered with Notarize, a trusted digital notarization company, to complete the first eWill in U.S. history.

5. Document storage and accessibility: Advancements in online document storage (cloud storage) and security have made it possible for individuals to securely store their eWills and other estate planning documents online. Digital vaults, such as the one provided by Trust & Will, often come with bank-level encryption. This approach provides easy access for both the Testator, their Executor, and chosen beneficiaries. It allows for easier updates when necessary, and avoids the potential issue of misplacing physical documents.

Why eWills will continue to thrive post-pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic helped to expose several points of vulnerability in the estate planning industry when faced with times of uncertainty. While the pandemic may be over, the vast majority of those who lived through it are unlikely to forget the experience quickly. “Expect and prepare for the unexpected” appears to be a new mantra of sorts and begins to help explain why eWills are here to stay. 

The pandemic itself fundamentally changed the way we approach technology and digital solutions. Digital natives likely felt relief when outdated processes came online, while those less comfortable with technology became more comfortable with practice using digital platforms, such as for estate planning. As a result, the general public likely accepts and now expects digital-first services and recognizes digital estate planning as an option that is not only legitimate and secure, but more convenient.

The ability to create, update, and store estate planning documents online provides a level of flexibility that traditional paper-based methods cannot match. This convenience is particularly appealing to individuals who have busy schedules or limited mobility. With eWills, people can easily manage their estate planning needs from anywhere, reducing the barriers and reluctance that might have existed before the pandemic. Additionally, the cost-effectiveness of digital solutions compared to traditional methods is an attractive factor that will continue to drive the popularity of eWills in the post-pandemic era. Overall, the combination of increased technology adoption, convenience, and accessibility makes eWills a lasting and preferred choice for many individuals seeking to secure their estate planning needs.

Trust & Will: paving the way for remote estate planning

Trust & Will saw a need for accessible estate planning years before the pandemic. Since its establishment in 2017, Trust & Will has worked tirelessly to provide affordable, accessible, and inclusive estate planning options to Americans and their families. It is an online estate planning platform that provides a seamless experience, from online Will and Trust creation, remote notarization, and digital vault storage with bank-level security. Individuals have the option to have their estate plan shipped to them, or they can have a truly digital experience from end-to-end, depending on the state in which they live.

During the pandemic, Trust & Will made history by completing the first-ever eWill in the U.S. This paved the way for more states to adopt eWill legislation, which is currently underway. Now, Americans have the valuable option for remote estate planning from anywhere in the world. 

We invite you to learn more today about how Trust & Will makes estate planning easy, whether you’re interested in creating your own estate plan or settling someone else’s. From Wills, Trust-based estate plans, and assistance with the Probate process, we have easy-to-use tools with your peace of mind at the forefront of our design. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning and settlement  options today!

[It’s important to note that given the dynamic nature of eWill legislation, the availability and specific requirements for eWills vary from state to state. Trust & Will is working to make our platform compliant with eWill regulations in the states where they are available. For the latest updates, be sure to check out our eWill page.]

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Trust & Will is an online service providing legal forms and information. We are not a law firm and we do not provide legal advice.