Updated November 2019.
Will writing options
Before the advent of online Will writing services there were two general approaches to writing a Will. Going to a solicitor, or writing your own Will on a piece of paper. These two approaches were diametrically opposite. A solicitor would be able to provide you with legal advice, and potentially write custom clauses in your Will, but the service would cost you several hundreds of pounds.
The option of going to a solicitor was not available to everybody either because of a lack of time, or an unwillingness to pay high fees to what was perceived to be a simple instruction. So many people attempted to write their own Will starting with a blank sheet of paper, and in general terms explain how they would want their estate to be distributed. The common belief was that writing at least something on a piece of paper, was better than dying without a Will.
In the mid to late 1990’s a number of blank form kits started entering the market. Available from shops like WHSmith the kits provided some structure to writing a Will, and at least guided the user through making some key appointments, and included the formalities of revoking previous Wills, and signing the new document.
The problem was, the blank form kits were terrible. They are still available today from sites like Amazon, but as we’ve discussed in previous articles here and here, they rarely cover everything and leave way too much responsibility in the hands of the user. Most disputes over “do-it-yourself” Wills are caused by this type of blank Will kit.
So two things started to emerge to fill the gap between the woefully inadequate blank form Will kits and the terribly expensive solicitors.
Independent Will writers
Firstly, a growth of independent Will writers. The types of people who stop you in the local shopping centre and offer a deal on writing a Will. The problem is that there is no legal requirement for anybody to have any legal training whatsoever to offer their services as a Will writer (in contrast to Canada and the US where it would be illegal to conduct the “unauthorized practice of law”). Which gave rise to the term “cowboy Will writers“.
The legal profession lobbied to make Will writing a “protected profession”, meaning that only solicitors would be able to prepare Wills, offering some safeguards to the consumer. In researching this, the Legal Services Consumer Panel did a “shadow shopping” exercise buying over 100 Wills from solicitors, independent Will writers and online services. They reached a number of interesting conclusions;
The study found defective wills on a shocking scale and evidence of bad sales practices. One in four of the wills in the shadow shop were failed. The same proportion of wills prepared by solicitors and will-writing companies were failed. Wills were almost as likely to fail whether the client had simple or complex circumstances. There were problems with wills not being legally valid or not meeting the client’s requirements. There were also issues with poor sales practices like lack of transparency over costs, poor storage practices and pressure selling.
It was clear that you were no more likely to receive a Will that worked from a solicitor as you were from an independent Will writer. The study clearly showed that protecting the Will writing profession was not going to protect the consumer, and could even be a disservice to consumers by allowing solicitors to charge even more and be even less transparent about their prices.
Online Will services
Just over a decade ago, as the Internet grew and particularly people’s comfort levels with using online interactive services, a new breed of Will writing services started to emerge. At LegalWills.co.uk we were one of the pioneers, launching in 2003.
When a solicitor writes a Will, they generally do not start with a blank sheet of paper and start typing legal clauses. Wills are written by compiling established legal “precedents” which are readily available in legal text books. By using tried and tested clauses, a solicitor knows that the clauses will work. Particularly for more complicated sections like setting up trusts.
For example, in the UK, one of the most commonly used legal textbooks is “Parker’s Modern Will Precedents” .
The book and accompanying software claims to
provide private client solicitors and professional will drafters with a thorough understanding and working knowledge of the current will drafting process and the ability to draft better wills. It covers practical situations and offer pragmatic advice, rather than just the theory involved.
Online Will services usually use established legal precedents in exactly the same way. But by putting a consumer layer in front of the software, it can guide a layperson through the process of preparing a Will without having to ask any legal questions or even exposing the user to the arcane legal language. But, and this is an important point, the end result is usually word-for-word identical to a Will prepared by a solicitor.
The State of Will writing in the UK
With all of these new options for writing a Will, you would think that more people would have one. Sadly, this isn’t the case. For decades, the number of UK adults without a Will has hovered around 60%. Last year, the BBC reported that the number of enquiries to Citizen’s Advice from people trying to sort out intestate estates (people dying without a Will) was actually sharply increasing. The number has increased year over year every year for the past 6 years.
A recent YouGov survey reported that
Fewer than half (41%) of all adults say that they currently have a will. However that number does rise significantly after the age of 55; almost three quarters of that group do have one (71%). Only two in five (42%) of 45 to 54 year olds have a will.
For those who haven’t made a will, over half (53%) say they have not got round to it, while 11% say they know they need to, and that they will get round to it. This shows an area where companies can attract new clients. A significant majority (68%), say that they are too young to make a will, and 20% say they have no assets to pass on.
The reality is that there is never a good reason to not have a Will. Dying without a Will is not a strategy, it is just negligence. Writing a Will is not about you, it’s about the people you leave behind, so if you care about anybody, you would take the time to prepare your own Last Will and Testament.
How does an online Will service differ from a Will kit?
There have been many widely reported issues with blank form Will kits. Whenever one of these hits the news, it is generally followed by a frenzy of legal professionals warning against the dangers of “do it yourself” Will services. But the most likely errors that arise from blank form kits simply do not apply to online Will services. For example;
i. There is no “alternate scenario” provision. Most people have a good plan for their estate, but rarely think about handling a situation where their main beneficiary pre-deceases them, or is involved in a common accident.
ii. There is no residual clause. One of the most common misconceptions with writing your own Will is that you have to list everything that you own and state who will receive what. The reality is that you don’t know when your Will is going to come into effect; it could be tomorrow, it could be 30 years from now. You don’t know what you will own when your Will comes into effect, so every Will has a “residual clause”. Everything in your estate after debts, taxes, funeral expenses and specific legacies have been paid out. Often your residual beneficiary is the recipient of almost everything that you own.
iii. There is no error checking. If you have named a young child, you cannot leave everything to that child unless a trust is set up. Online services generally prompt you to name a guardian and set up a trust if you have young beneficiaries.
iv. You don’t think through things properly. An all too common mistake comes when your spouse is not the biological parent of your children. You leave everything to your spouse, hoping that when they pass away, everything will subsequently flow to your children. However, once it passes to your spouse, it then becomes part of their estate to be distributed according to their Will. There is a high likelihood that your children will end up with nothing. Some advanced online Will services handle this type of scenario.
There are also high profile cases of people forgetting to sign their Will, or making handwritten changes to their Will. This isn’t a unique problem with blank form kits, but can be easily avoided with a careful review of the signing instructions. It really isn’t complicated. Your Will must be signed in the presence of two witnesses who are not beneficiaries (or the spouse of a beneficiary). And never, ever, handwrite a change on a Will.
Errors in the signing of a Will are not unique to do-it-yourself approaches either. A recent case had a solicitor work with a couple and had them accidentally sign each other’s Wills. Expensive legal battles followed.
Why is an online Will service better than a solicitor or Will writer?
We have explained how an online service is likely to give you a better final product than a blank form Will kit, but what about compared to a solicitor? We have already discussed how a shadow survey of Will writing services revealed that there were just as many errors in solicitor drafted Wills as there were with online services, so the final product may not be lower in quality to a Last Will and Testament written by a solicitor. But what are the upsides to using an online Will service?
Most people haven’t written their Will, and we believe that the primary reason is that working with a solicitor is inconvenient. Writing a Will with a solicitor demands that you firstly research a fair and reputable company. Then establish how much the service will cost (easier said than done), then booking the appointment to head to the solicitor’s office. If you are a couple, then you both have to co-ordinate your schedules to visit the solicitor together. If you have young children, it’s best to leave them with somebody else.
If you need to change your Will. You repeat the process each time.
A solicitor will likely charge anything from £400-£900 to prepare your Will. Any update to your Will is going to be several hundreds of pounds each time. An online Will service costs anything from £20 to £70.
In my opinion, this is where the legal profession has let themselves down. The Will writing service offered by a solicitor is fundamentally unchanged now for 150 years. Granted, we now have computers, software and printers, but these have only made the Will writing process easier for the solicitor. They have done nothing to enhance the service for the consumer. If you write your Will with a solicitor, you will likely walk out the door with 4 sheets of paper and little else.
One of the key issues in estate planning is not describing the distribution of your estate, but describing your assets to your Executor and loved ones. The Executor has to gather up your “entire estate” and distribute it according to your wishes. Some online service providers have worked to support this process. Solicitors on the other hand do very little beyond writing your Will.
No sales pressure
Solicitors who offer Will writing at affordable prices often earn money through “value add” services. The first of which is the slightly dishonest persuasion that they would be the most suitable candidate for the role of Executor/Trustee. Depending on the complexity of your estate, this can be worth thousands of pounds to the solicitor for doing next to nothing. There have been many articles exposing the Executor fee rip-off, where solicitors have charged both a percentage of the estate, as well as an hourly rate. There have been cases of an estate being passed from one spouse to another, incurring a 5 percent Executor fee. In these cases the solicitor would be billing the estate £25,000 for a day’s work.
The other value add service is Will storage. In some cases this can be useful, but some solicitors charge over inflated prices on an annual basis.
Who are the main Online Will service providers?
We have been in this business for over a decade, and we know who the main online Will service providers are. Some have been around as long as we have, and some are new to the area. We wanted to provide as unbiased a review as possible for these services. There are some service providers who do things better than us, and we are happy to acknowledge this. Depending on your needs, you may find that a particular service provider works better for you. It would be unreasonable for us to feel that we are better than every other service provider on every single metric. The main online Will service providers at the time of writing are;
What about other Online Will service providers?
There are some we don’t like. There is one called “nine minute Will” that are skating close to intellectual property infringement of tenminutewill. You step through their service and prepare your Will, everything looks good. Until you realise that the service never asked you about naming an Executor. Read through your Will and you will see that the company has inserted themselves as the Executor of your estate. It’s dishonest. The company also charges you for Will storage whether or not you use it.
LawDepot.co.uk is another service that we don’t like. They are the only service that offer the ability to write your Will “for free” in 5-10 minutes. It’s dishonest. There is absolutely no pricing posted on their website, and it’s only when you try to access your final document that you discover that they require you to give them your credit card number. They will then charge you a monthly subscription of £29 (or £350 a year) unless you cancel. The problem is, they make it extremely difficult for you to cancel keeping you waiting on hold for hours.
Particular things to look for in an online Will service
When choosing a Will writing service provider, it is important to see that the company is open and transparent about their prices and services. If prices are not clearly displayed on the website, or if cost structures are confusing, these should make you think twice. Furthermore, if a company is offering a Lasting Power of Attorney option, stay away. A Lasting Power of Attorney can be created for free using the government’s website, and you will always have to pay a £110 fee to register the forms. Any site offering this service is simply repackaging this already-free government service.
When creating your Will, you want to be safe knowing that your information is stored properly and is at no risk of falling into the wrong hands. Does the site use encryption? Does it spell out all the security features it has? Does it sell your information to third parties when this is against your wishes? You want to look for security features on the Will writing software’s site to ensure you are getting the level or security you wish for. Some online Will services are less expensive or even free, but their revenue model is through selling your data to insurance companies and funeral homes. This should be clear in their terms of service agreement.
Help and Support
When drafting an important legal document such as a Will, you will most definitely have questions. An online Will service should provide you with all the support and guidance you need to make your Will writing process painless and comforting. Look at the FAQ pages of the website to see if most questions are answered, and if you have further questions, search up the site’s contact information. If it is difficult to find, this is another red flag. Some provide online chat services during office hours, it can be reassuring to know that somebody is there, so ask them a quick question through the chat service and see what kind of response you get.
The Review of Online Will services
Value for money
For our value for money comparison we initially did a direct review of the price for creating a Will
||Price for one Will
||Price for Mirror Wills
But this alone isn’t a fair comparison. For example, tenminutewill claims to include a check of every single Will by a qualified legal professional, and will email you within 2 days if you’ve made a mistake.
TenminuteWill and MakingAWill also include unlimited updates for life on your Will included in their price. This actually makes these two services the cheapest options.
Make a Will online only gives you 28 days of updates
Farewill are much more expensive up front, and charge an ongoing £10 a year.
SimpleWills allows only one update to your Will per year
LegalWills.co.uk is the lowest upfront cost for preparing a Will and also Mirror Wills for a couple. But the service does only include one year of updates within that fee. Updates can be made all the time the account is active and the account can be extended in multi-year bundles.
We have updated this section in November 2019 after a request from one of the service providers profiled. This particular service provider felt that we were unfair in our evaluation. And they were right.
We re-did our evaluation, and sent three questions to each service provider. We were actually a little surprised by the lack of response.
In trying to rate the quality of support, we did something a little sneaky. We asked two questions to each service provider to see what their response time was, and how helpful they were with their answers. We then reviewed the answers and rated them for completeness, politeness and usefulness.
||Quality of help
||Phone, email, chat
||webform – no live
||email or callback
||Phone, email, chat
||email or post
We were very surprised to only receive two responses to our questions, from MakeAWillOnline and from FareWill.
The two services that answered gave very useful information even though the particular requests could not be handled using their service. The quality of customer support though was excellent.
I really have no idea why the other services didn’t answer at all.
Use of the service
This is the true test of the service.
TenMinuteWill were one of the pioneers of online Will services, coming online at about the same time as LegalWills.co.uk. Sadly, their website hasn’t changed much in 16 years, and it looks a bit dated. Of course you could argue that the laws surrounding Wills haven’t changed much, so why should the Will service, but the interaction, by today’s standards, is clunky. They also don’t seem to have added any new service capabilities for at least a decade.
When selecting a relationship you are presented with a slightly ridiculous drop down list of over 50 possible relationships (that probably feed into the creation of a Mirror Will). It kind of works, but it’s far from elegant. It’s also very difficult to jump around the service. When you complete it in a straight linear approach, it works for some situations, but when you want to adjust things, the service can be very difficult to navigate. The service does have enough flexibility to support most scenarios, but the pages are not particularly user friendly.
MakingAWill is a little more updated, but is by far the most error prone of the services. It allows you to prepare a Will with no alternate plans whatsoever and relies heavily on the user knowing what they are doing. The whole essence of your estate distribution is captured in one small part of one section. And you can make a real mess with this page.
FareWill is the newest player in this market, and by far the slickest. They have made the best use of new web technologies to provide by far the easiest user interface. I really love the way they allow you to specify your family situation and they do a wonderful job of explaining things like marital status and the implications of non traditional relationships. They also have online chat available for help at any time.
However, there is a glaring omission in the Farewill service. I could find absolutely no way of creating an alternate plan in case my main beneficiary were to pre-decease me or be involved in an accident at the same time as me. Generally a distribution plan is straightforward, but the challenge comes with the alternate plan. FareWill seems to make no provision for an alternate plan whatsoever.
MakeAWillOnline is another website that needs a refresh. The service is simple enough, and covers most situations. If anything, they allow a couple of options that shouldn’t be in there at all. They have a strange option that permits a beneficiary to inherit only if they get married. This is a conditional bequest, and generally not recommended. The prospective beneficiary could marry at 90 years old, so who will take care of the inheritance for the next 65 years?
SimpleWills.net has some nice unique features. It capitalises names for you, and offers online chat support. The service is very clean and elegant and comes with a nice progress bar. In my opinion, it offered the most informative and well written online help of the services that we tested. Of the online Will services that we tested, this was the best.
However, SimpleWills require you to uncheck their own appointment of themselves as the Executor of your estate, and this should raise some serious questions. SimpleWills will take 2.5% of your estate. Which will run into thousands of pounds in fees for the average estate. It’s an underhand approach to working with clients, but a common strategy for solicitors. We also found this site to have a number of uncomfortable typographical mistakes, like this description of their Executor service.
It is very easy today to research independent reviews of online service providers. Some of those we don’t like for example, are quickly exposed by unhappy customers.
It is important to look for social proof.
LegalWills.co.uk uses Google Reviews, a trusted and independent service, and one that we have very little control over.
Farewill have gone with TrustPilot and have also done a great job, as have SimpleWills.net.
TenMinuteWill.co.uk have used eKomi and have a score of 4.8 from over 100 reviews.
Other services like MakingAWill have failed miserably here, They have one TrustPilot review and it’s scathing.
Society of Will Writers
All of the services that we reviewed with the exception of FareWill are members of the Society of Will Writers. LegalWills.co.uk has chosen not to be. One of the main benefits of the Society is that they offer liability insurance to its members. LegalWills.co.uk has its own coverage of over £2M. None of these online Will services are actually writing your Will for you. Like us, they have used solicitors to develop software that allow you to write your own Will. Every path through the service at LegalWills.co.uk has been signed off by an estate planning solicitor, but we do not review every individual Will (unless this service is requested). Our conclusion was that there was little value to our customers in us joining the Society of Will Writers.
What about LegalWills.co.uk?
We have tried to be fair in our assessment of the different online Will writing services. LegalWills.co.uk is the most affordable service for preparing your Will, however, if you want to have a lifetime of updates to your Will, we are not the cheapest (that would be MakingAWill).
We have a fully mobile friendly website, but I don’t think we’re the slickest (that would be FareWill). We have been around for a long time, but not the longest (that would be TenMinuteWill).
A balance has to be struck between the simplicity of the service, but making sure that all needs are met. Our service is certainly not as simple as some, but certainly more capable than most. If you simply want to leave you entire estate to your spouse, then MakeAWillOnline probably provides the fastest route to doing this. But if your estate is any more nuanced, then you may run into limitations with the simpler services.
A clear example of this is our support for lifetime interests in a home or assets. If your spouse is not the biological parent of your children it is usually a mistake to leave everything directly to your spouse as it will then likely flow through to their family. You run the risk of your children receiving none of your assets unless you create a lifetime interest trust. LegalWills.co.uk is the only service provider with this option.
But LegalWills.co.uk offers a lot more than a straight Will writing service, and this is where it stands apart from all other online Will writing services.
Most of the websites reviewed offer one service only. TenMinuteWill also offer a Lasting Power of Attorney for £40 which is a little cheeky because you can write one for free on the government website. Other than that, every other website offers only the Will, and the Mirror Will.
Beyond online Will writing
LegalWills.co.uk has worked hard to harness the power of the internet. We started with a Messages service and proprietary keyholder mechanism. So that you could prepare messages that would be unlocked and distributed by your keyholders after you have passed away.
We extended that capability into an Executor tool, that ensures that your Executor can locate your assets at the appropriate time through our LifeLocker service. We took this one step further by allowing you to upload files to your own digital vault which can be accessed by your Executor, or loved ones after you have passed away.
In adding these services we have tried to solve the issues associated with estate planning and managing your estate. Writing your Will is the first step to getting your assets into the right hands, but without these additional tools it is only a first step.
In addition LegalWills.co.uk is the only service provider that allows you to prepare a Will that deals with UK assets whilst living overseas through our Expat Will service.
Try them out for yourself
Clearly, we are big fans of the service at LegalWills.co.uk. But we would encourage you to look at all of the online Will service providers. You may find that some are more appropriate for your situation than others. Take your time to decide before paying. You should also look at refund policies if you don’t like the look of the final Will.
If you have any questions about our service, we would be very happy to help.
Tim Hewson is one of the founders of LegalWills.co.uk.
He has over 20 years of experience helping people to write their Will and other estate planning documents. He has been interviewed by many of the major news media outlets and has contributed to articles in most leading publications. He has also contributed to a number of financial planning books.
Throughout his career, Tim has written extensively on the subject of Will writing and estate planning.
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