Coronavirus and Your Money: Special Coverage

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By Zachary Hochheim
April 15, 2020
José Vélez / Money

In normal times, a last will and testament is a prudent thing to have. During a public health emergency like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they’re essential. And with more and more online options available, putting together a will is easier than ever — so you can be assured that your end of life wishes around your assets and property will go to the people you desire.

Even if you don’t have a lot of assets and that dream home is still a dream, wills are still a necessity. “While you may not have millions and millions of dollars, like most Americans, you still do have an estate,” says Chas Rampenthal, General Counsel for online willmaker LegalZoom.

Curious about how to make an online will? Read MONEY’s guide below.

What You Need for an Online Will

Wills have traditionally been drafted in person with a lawyer, but over the last twenty years, a number of online will preparation services have been gaining popularity. Both paid and free services like LegalZoom, Tomorrow.me, and Rocket Lawyer allow you to create a will by answering a series of questions about your finances and personal circumstances, and then export a finished legal document. With a relatively simple estate, you can prepare a draft in about ten minutes.

All you need to do to begin is know what you own, and decide who you want it to go to. That’s it. Online will services all use a similar set of questions asking you to describe your relations (parents, spouse, siblings, children, etc.), the chain of inheritance should any named heir predecease you, what you own (stocks, real estate, cars, etc.), and how you want all of that divided up. It can be as simple as “give everything to my daughter,” and as complicated as distributing a billion dollar empire among a hundred heirs and charities. If you have any questions while drafting the will, some online will services have on call lawyers who can answer your concerns in real time.

Are Online Wills Legal?

The short answer is yes, wills drafted online are both legal and enforceable. “There’s really no difference between the will itself and its effectiveness whether you do it online, or you do it with a lawyer,” said Rampenthal. “As long as you meet the legal requirements and make sure it is executed and effected properly.”

To be executed, the will needs to be witnessed by two people not listed as heirs and signed by the writer of the will. Some states also require that a notary — a person authorized by the state to legally certify or “notarize” documents — witness the signing as well. As long as these conditions are met, it makes no difference how a will was written. Nationalnotary.org can tell you if a notary is needed to legalize a will in your state, if remote notary services are available, and how to access such services to execute your will if you are under a shelter in place order.

Though online wills are legal, all wills can be challenged in court on various grounds. Anyone with the resources and resolve to fight a will can have their day in court. Luckily even a simple will can withstand challenges lacking in legal justification.

A will may also be deemed null and void for a number of reasons. The most common tactic used to invalidate a will is to prove that the writer of the will was not of sound mind when writing the will. Wills written or amended on the writer’s deathbed, for instance, are at increased risk for this.

If you feel like your will may be contested, you can always draft a will online now, then amend it with an attorney later.

Can an Online Will Be Hacked?

Over the past several years, more than 100 brick and mortar law firms have fallen victim to some form of hacking. So far there have been no reported breaches of online legal services companies, but all websites storing user data are potential hacking targets.

There are many reasons why hackers hack: for the simple challenge of breaching a big company, to exposing an industry’s dirty laundry. But one of the main reasons is that people often use the same login and password information from one online account to the next. If they hack one of your accounts, chances are they can use that same login information on your bank, meaning that any breach is a potential payday for a hacker.

Though a will won’t contain critical personal information such as social security numbers, dates of birth, or even bank account numbers, there is the potential for other information to be leaked.

However, because your will becomes public upon your death anyway, any information the will contains will see the light of day eventually.

Staying ahead of the rapacious hacking community, however, will require a continued and evolving investment in cyber security by the online legal services industry.

Online Wills: Your Last Word

Wills, however, are not the last word in estate planning. To protect yourself and your heirs, you should also prepare additional legal documents: power of attorney, healthcare proxy, a living will, and a HIPAA release if this applies to your situation. A number of online will preparation services will help you determine which of these documents you need by filling out the original questionnaire, and will help you draft them online.

In addition, it’s a good idea to write a letter of intent to your surviving loved ones. Though not a legal document, a letter of intent provides instructions about your funeral and other end of life wishes. This document means the difference between “she would have wanted this” and “she wanted this.”

Finally, remember that a will is not just about divvying up your assets and preventing family squabbles over your baseball card collection. A will can also establish who will care for minor children if both you and any other designated guardian die.

Fiske suggests choosing a separate guardian and trustee for children, preferably one each from either side of the family. “I recommend to keep both families involved if both parents are gone… Sometimes the skills for raising a child are not necessarily the same skills [as] managing funds. It’s hard to find that in one person. I think the division of duties is nice.”

Most of all, having a will provides peace of mind like no other document.

“You can see this visible sigh of relief when people sign their will, or even after the first meeting,” said Kimberly Fiske, an expert in estate planning and a partner with Fiske Law Group in Alexandria, Virginia. “They always say ‘I thought it was going to be so awful, but it really wasn’t.”

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