Q. What is an online Will service?
In Canada, there is no such thing as a digital Will, or an online Last Will and Testament. But there are a number of services, online, that help you to write your own Will.
These services are generally interactive, and guide you through the process by presenting you with a number of questions.
Most Canadians are now familiar with tax preparation software. Online Will writing services are very similar, except that the final product will be your Last Will and Testament.
However, simply stepping through an online Will making service will not create a legal Last Will and Testament.
All of these services require you to download and print the final document, which must then be signed in the presence of two witnesses in order to make it a legal Will.
There are slow movements in estate planning laws to adopt digital technology, including the option to remotely sign documents.
These law changes were accelerated because of the physical distancing imposed by COVID-19.
But the law still requires a document to be signed, and the two witnesses must also sign the document. Digital signatures are not yet legally permitted.
Q. Why are online Will services so popular?
There are two key advantages to online Will services over traditional Will writers (including lawyers).
Firstly, the services are generally much more affordable. The online Will writing services that we have reviewed range from $39.95 to $135.
The average price charged by a lawyer to write a Will is about $400-$600 and it can be even higher than this.
Secondly, online Will writing services are much more convenient. You are able to prepare your own Will any time, night or day, from anywhere.
You just need access to the Internet and a computer, tablet or phone. Most services allow you to update the document over time without penalty.
Writing a Will with a lawyer takes at least two appointments (which, if you are a couple, have to be co-ordinated with each other).
Any time a Will needs to be updated, you would have to book another appointment with a lawyer. A few lawyers do offer home visits, but not many.
We also have found that stepping through an online Will writing service can be educational.
You can take your time to learn about the different aspects of Will writing.
The services that we reviewed all offer free customer support, so if you have any questions, for example, who to appoint as Executor, these services are happy to give you some general guidance.
Q. What are the limitations of an online Will writing service?
There is still very much a role for legal professionals.
None of the online Will services offer legal advice, so if you have a particular situation that needs a consultation with somebody
qualified in estate planning laws for your Province, then you need to see a lawyer.
Be aware though that not all lawyers are experienced in writing Wills, so if you do choose to work with a lawyer, make sure that they are an estate planning lawyer.
There are particular situations, such as caring for a child with special needs, or setting up dual Wills to cover corporate assets, that are much better served by a lawyer.
FormalWill and Epilogue Wills both direct you away from their service early on if the service determines that your situation would benefit from legal advice.
Some people would prefer the assurance from a lawyer that everything has been completed correctly.
We found that LegalWills.ca offered the most flexibility within their service, but with that came more opportunity to make mistakes within the service.
They offer an option of "none of the above, let me describe what I want to happen", which is great if you have a particularly unusual distribution plan,
but there is always the chance that you could put something into your Will that really doesn't make sense.
Q. How much does it cost to write a Will?
This is one of the most confusing aspects of Will writing. You can actually write your own Will and it would be a perfectly legal document.
It would cost you nothing at all. There are even free downloadable forms on the Internet.
On the other end of the spectrum, some lawyers charge well over $1,000 for a Last Will and Testament. There is no correct price for a Will.
These online Will writing services range from free (with a monthly subscription unless you cancel) at LawDepot, through to $135 at Epilogue.
We honestly couldn't see any correlation between the price charged and the quality of the service or final document.
In addition, there was no improved level of customer service with a more expensive document.
So the pricing almost appears to be random, at a level set by each service provider.
Q. Is an online Will service the same as using a lawyer?
The process is very different. Online Will writing services do not actually claim to be writing your Will for you.
They are simply giving you the tools to prepare your own Will.
Online Will writing services are also clear that they do not give legal advice (even though when we tested the support services,
we did receive answers to questions that bordered on legal advice). There have even been cases in the U.S. of online services being charged with offering legal advice.
Having said that, online Will writing services generally use established legal precedents to compile their Wills.
These legal precedents are the same clauses used by estate planning lawyers across the country.
So oftentimes you will end up with a document that is word for word identical to one prepared by a lawyer.
You will not receive "estate planning" advice from an online Will writing service, such as
tips on structuring your finances to maximize the amount going to your beneficiaries.
For example, some Provinces charge probate fees and there are techniques for reducing these fees.
It is possible that a skilled estate planning lawyer would be able to help with this.
Q. Do I need a lawyer to write a Will?
There is absolutely no legal requirement to use a lawyer to write your Will.
You are absolutely legally entitled to write your own Will using a blank piece of paper – it likely just wouldn't be a very good one.
The legal requirements for a Will are that it is signed in the presence of two witnesses.
With the exception of a "holographic" Will, which is written entirely in your own handwriting and does not need to be witnessed.
However, this "non-witnessed" Will is not accepted in all Provinces (BC for example, does not accept a handwritten, non-witnessed,
holographic Will as a legal document). But a document prepared by an online Will writing service is not a holographic Will.
It must be downloaded and signed in the presence of witnesses.
Once it is signed and witnessed, it becomes a legal document.
There is no requirement to have it signed by a lawyer, stamped by a notary or registered.
It must simply be stored in a safe place – somewhere that your Executor can access when they need it.