The use of online wills has surged in the past year or so, fuelled by the pandemic and by the rise of slick online technology offerings. Our independent research reveals there are concerns however, whether consumers really know what they are buying and whether a simple online will really meets their needs. Making a will is vitally important but are these slick and quick offerings genuinely good for consumers?

A will is a legal document, possibly the most important document you will ever sign and sets out what you want to happen to almost all your worldly possessions.

There cannot be a sector responsible for so much which has such limited oversight and governance.

Funeral Solution Expert conducted two surveys among 1,500 UK consumers in the first half of 2021 and reviewed over 25 different online firms. We tested propositions ranging from low or no cost to the more expensive, and we tested user experience ranging from the more traditional longer (some might say boring) forms to those with slick and transformative journeys. We also tested with consumers whether they understood their own affairs and were they ‘simple’ or ‘complex’ – and we also explored whether they took the time to read the terms or to understand what they were signing up to. Our findings are a cause for concern and we consulted with a number of respected figures within the industry to validate these concerns.

There is no doubt that an online will can be a good solution if your affairs are genuinely simple and can save you money vs a more traditional or solicitor route to writing a will. But – our research shows that as many as nearly 70% of consumers consider their affairs to be ‘simple’ when many subsequently reveal through questioning that their affairs are in fact ‘complex’. That may be due to family circumstance (children from previous relationships), owning overseas property, maybe owning a business or even specifically not wishing to leave anything to someone.

Through our work we found the following areas of concern:

  • Some online will writers seem to work on the assumption that 3 or 4 key questions cover most complex circumstances and if you can rule them out, then it’s ok. But for as many as 30% of consumers it’s not ok. This shortened ‘question set’ may present an easier journey, but this short cut is not without risk of a bad outcome for the consumer or their family, and not all providers make it clear the types of circumstances that might make the will that they are writing ineffective.
  • The main trouble with wills generally is that if the one you have made is not suitable – then when the will is eventually needed (or read) then the person who arranged it is no longer there. If things go wrong then where do consumers (next of kin) go if they need to complain. Usually they rely on; a regulator (if there is one) trade bodies (if providers belong to them) and ultimately terms and conditions. The will writing sector is largely unregulated, most online will writing firms do not belong to the SRA and many do not belong to recognised trade bodies either.
  • It seems as if the consequence of the risk of getting it wrong is stacked firmly in favour of the will writing firm and not the consumer. We found – which was hardly surprising – that many consumers don’t read or simply don’t understand the Terms and Conditions of their will. Yet some providers often write in their terms and conditions that they limit their liability for the services they provided to the price paid or very little more than that. That hardly seems fair or adequate given what’s at stake.
  • The online will writing sector is fiercely competitive. There are some excellent propositions at zero or very low cost, which do offer well guided journeys (making it much safer for consumers). However certain proposition elements let consumers down from a value perspective. A common practise is to ask consumers to pay fees each year to allow annual updates. Our survey found most do not update their wills, making this service of little value. In addition circumstances or events that require changes to a will may need a more complex solution, rendering a simple will redundant anyway.
  • For a will to be valid it needs to be written by someone with the mental capacity to do so and not under any pressure to make or change a will, yet we find there is very little effort made by online will writers to check for “testamentary capacity’.

All of these concerns lead us to conclude that in time we expect the number of contested wills to rise and in particular from super simplistic online wills.

A will used to be the exclusive domain of the high street solicitor, but that changed some while ago, with legal firms, will writing specialists and charities all competing with each other to offer wills. In the last couple of years technology has caught up with the online will writing market with some wonderfully engaging websites which are very easy to use.

However, with little visibility for the consumer of the risks (of getting it wrong) and, in the case of many wills being written online, limited checks for suitability, the unsuspecting consumer is neither in position to check for themselves as to the suitability, nor qualified enough to inspect the terms and conditions to assess the risks and suitability of what is being offered to them.

Our basic guidance for consumers is as follows:

  • Please make a will: It’s better than not making one whether affairs are ‘simple’ or ‘complex’.
  • If you are not sure whether your affairs might be ‘complex’ then consult a firm that are registered with one of the trade bodies below. They can guide you.
  • Use professional firms which are regulated by the SRA and/or belongs to trade bodies including STEP, SFE or SOLLA. The key point here is if something goes wrong your next of kin have a formal route to raise a complaint.
  • Think twice before paying for free or low-cost update services – most never use them, and if you need to change your will it’s more than possible a simple will becomes redundant anyway.
  • Check the T&Cs – and the level of liability that the firm writing your will take. It’s sad you have to do this (as most don’t tell you) – but so necessary.
  • Print and sign your will in front of witnesses making sure you tell loved ones where it’s stored.

Want to find out more?

Purchase the full report

The full version of Funeral Solution Expert’s independent research ‘Online wills – are they worth the paper they are not written on?’ – is available for purchase and can be found here – where you can find a synopsis of the contents.