It’s undeniable that Americans live and work in a digital world. However, it might surprise you to find out that paper is still one of the top culprits in terms of environmental waste, pollution and deforestation that is devastating our planet. Not only is America the top producer of paper, it’s also the top consumer. The legal industry is largely responsible, as it is one of the top paper users in the nation. Trust & Will argues that it’s high time that the widespread digitization of the legal system takes place for the sake of the environment and climate. This guide will introduce eWills, the foundation of digital estate planning, as a sustainable and eco-friendly option that can help set a positive precedent for the rest of the industry.
The environmental impact of traditional paper Wills
When you visit your attorney’s office to have them draw up your estate plan, you’ll typically receive a packet of printed documents, often including copies and carbon copies. Roughly one-third of Americans have an estate plan. That’s roughly 110 million individuals. If all Americans opted to execute a traditional paper Will, to say that it is a lot of paper is an understatement. It does not even begin to account for the paper produced and wasted in the process of creating a paper Will, such as numerous drafts, copies, and future revisions.
Here are some mind blowing statistics about paper waste:
300 million tons of paper are produced globally each year.
Americans, the largest consumers of paper, produce 85 million tons of paper waste each year.
In the U.S., paper ranks third for energy-intensive manufacturing, as well as air, water, and land pollution.
Paper production directly leads to deforestation. Between 2001 and 2020, the U.S. lost 104 million acres of forests (a 15 percent decrease of tree cover.)
The legal, finance, real estate, and education industries are the largest contributors to paper consumption and waste.
Estate planning is a major area of the legal sector, which is one of the top contributors to paper waste and thus pollution and deforestation in the world. Law Technology Today argues that the legal system and industry as a “paper problem,” where practicing law is conflated with creating paper documents, Wills and other types of estate planning documents and contracts included. For the legal industry to begin to control paper waste, digitization is critical.
Digital solutions for a greener future in estate planning
Studies have found that the carbon footprint of paper is much greater than that of electronic documents. For example, a single ream of paper requires 47 gallons of water to produce. From production to consumer, a single sheet of paper has a carbon dioxide footprint of 4.64g. Globally, carbon emissions of paper are 8 percent of global emissions while the IT field contributes 2.7 percent.
To be clear, digital solutions also have a carbon footprint. Heavy metals are used to manufacture microchips, and e-waste must be accounted for. The main resources used are electricity and water, and as cloud storage expands, the demands on these resources if they go unchecked will be problematic.
Regardless, in the context of the carbon footprint and the environmental impact on trees, forests, and ecosystems, digital documents are superior to traditional paper products.
In the legal sector and estate planning industries, the “paper problem” can be solved by implementing digital solutions to improve sustainability.
EWills and the shift towards a green legacy
An eWill provides the same function as a Last Will and Testament, but never has to be reduced to paper. Digital platforms such as Trust & Will are offering eWills as a sustainable alternative to the traditional paper Will, for Testators who live in states that recognize them as legally valid.
An eWill is a Will that is created and executed digitally, from end to end. The Testator (the individual creating the Will) will either fill out an online template or answer a series of questions and prompts provided by the digital platform of their choice. For example, Trust & Will guides Testators through the process of Will creation by breaking it down into simple questions and prompts, ultimately generating a legally compliant Will online.
An eWill becomes fully digital from this point on based on the way it is executed and stored. The Testator can digitally sign the eWill using an electronic signature, before witnesses who are either physically present in person or are witnessing through the use of video conferencing technology. They will also then proceed to add their own digital signatures. If desired or required, the Testator can have the document notarized using a remote notary service. (Trust & Will has partnered with Notarize, a trusted online notary platform, to create a seamless experience for its members.) Last but not least, the eWill can be stored digitally in a secure online storage. For instance, Trust & Will offers its members a digital vault solution with bank-level encryption.
Through this process, an eWill never has to be reduced on paper.
Not all 50 states have adopted legislation to recognize eWills as legally valid, but the number of states who accept eWills is growing each year. Adoption is fast-moving and eWill recognition across the nation may take place in a matter of a few years. As the acceptance of eWills widens, more and more individuals will be able to choose a more sustainable option.
Embracing sustainability: why individuals choose eWills
Testimonials from individuals who have chosen eWills for environmental reasons.
Eco-consciousness in modern estate planning: a growing trend
Millennials and Gen Z together form 43 percent of the U.S. population. Not only are they the largest workforce, the choices they make drive the future of the economy. A recent NASDAQ study found that these two generations are eco-conscious in such a way that it drives their decisions around consumerism. For example, Gen Z-ers consumption is more about having access to products and services rather than owning them. They also demand sustainable products and are willing to spend more money to obtain them. The majority of Millennials are eco-conscious to the point that they will change their buying behavior in favor of environmentally-friendly products.
These spending and shopping habits are directly feeding into a growing trend of eco-consciousness in today’s estate planning market in two key ways. The first is the estate plan itself, such as leaving behind a green legacy that donates to environmental nonprofits. The second is making sustainability a priority when it comes to the execution and delivery method of the estate plan.
Within the context of sustainability, the eWill is far superior to the traditional paper Will. First and foremost, Millennials and Gen Z are digital natives who show a strong preference for digital-first products and services. They likely own the largest shares of digital assets, to the point that 74 percent appoint Digital Executors in their estate plans. Last but not least, these cohorts put a strong emphasis on sustainability in their consumption behaviors as discussed above. For individuals who identify with these consumer profiles, a digital estate plan would be expected and not just a preference. To individuals like these, executing a paper-base estate plan may even seem backwards.
Tips for creating an environmentally responsible eWill
Creating an environmentally responsible eWill is all about thinking through ways to minimize the environmental impact of the document while ensuring its validity, authenticity, and accessibility. Here are some tips and ideas on how to create an eco-friendly eWill:
Choose a digital format: Choose a widely supported and accessible digital format for your document, such as a PDF (Portable Document Format). This reduces the need for printing and can be readily accessible across all devices.
Cloud storage: Store your eWill in secure cloud storage platforms that prioritize environmental responsibility. Many cloud providers are committed to sustainability and renewable energy sources.
Password protection: To ensure the confidentiality and security of your eWill, use strong passwords or encryption. This avoids the need for printing multiple copies, making it both secure and environmentally friendly.
Digital signatures: Utilize digital signatures to validate your eWill. This saves paper and ink and makes the document legally binding in many jurisdictions.
Minimalist design: Keep the formatting and design of your eWill simple and minimalist. Avoid excessive graphics or images that could increase the file size unnecessarily.
Avoid unnecessary printing: Encourage your beneficiaries and family members to avoid printing the eWill. Instead, they can refer to the electronic version whenever needed.
Update electronically: If you need to update your eWill, make the changes electronically and share the updated version with relevant parties. This prevents the need for printing multiple copies.
Email distribution: Instead of physically mailing copies of your eWill, distribute it via email to concerned parties. Ensure that recipients understand the importance of minimizing printouts.
Educate beneficiaries: Inform your beneficiaries and relevant parties about the importance of environmental responsibility and the benefits of sticking to a digital format.
Estate planning platform: Utilize an estate planning platform that offers environmentally responsible options and prioritizes sustainability practices.
While the eWill is automatically the more sustainable choice compared with traditional paper Wills, with some brainstorming and planning, there are more things you can do to ensure the long-term sustainability of that eWill.
As a reminder, eWills are not yet recognized as legally valid in all 50 states. However, this is quickly changing and we expect national eWill recognition in the near future. Be sure to check your state’s legislation to find out whether eWills are recognized in your jurisdiction.
Embracing technology: a step towards a greener future
Companies play a direct role in sustainability and climate change, and Trust & Will prides itself in providing sustainable estate planning options while also striving for sustainability as a company itself!
We have taken our sustainability seriously from the very beginning. In 2020, we partnered with Ecologi, an organization that plants trees for every member who creates an estate plan. We’ve planted tens of thousands of trees and have reduced thousands of tonnes of carbon emissions. We have been a climate-positive workforce for nearly three years.
At Trust & Will, we’re here to help keep things simple. You can create a fully customizable, state-specific estate plan from the comfort of your own home in just 20 minutes. Click here to find out how you can start creating your own sustainable estate plan through Trust & will today.
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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.