For a while, the jury was out on online wills. Doubts persisted around the value of gifts, the likelihood of eventuation, and whether an online will would even stand up in court.
In recent years, that’s changed. As pointed out in Gathered Here’s recent Future of Online Wills Report, multiple online will providers are thriving in the UK, US, and Australian markets.
The number of wills written online is increasing year on year, as is the overall number of gifts and the value of gifts pledged.
In its 2019-2020 report, US-based Freewill reported that wills written through its website had included an estimated $800 million in bequests. In its follow-up 2020-2021 report, the total estimated value of bequests had almost doubled to $1.5 billion.
Trajectories of this magnitude, and even greater, are now being replicated in domestic markets.
In the first seven months of 2022, Australian end-of-life website Gathered Here saw a 132% increase in the number of wills written via its platform year on year. It also saw a 187% increase in the value of gifts pledged and a 217% increase in the number of gifts pledged.
After launching online wills in 2020, Gathered Here has already exceeded an estimated $200 million in charitable gifts pledged via its platform. Should growth continue at the same rate, more than $300 million will be pledged in the first half of 2023 alone.
Ross Anderson, senior manager of gifts in wills at The Lost Dogs’ Home, says it’s clear that online wills have the potential to deliver phenomenal value to charities and nonprofits.
“If all wills were written on an online will platform, the amount of income charities would benefit from would be enormous,” he said.
“Online wills are here to stay, they’ve been with us for some time and they’re definitely going to become increasingly important and far more prevalent in the future.”
In fact, Anderson believes the majority of charities in Australia will have some form of online will offering within 10 years and those that don’t begin incorporating online wills into their wider fundraising strategies risk being left behind.
“The longer charities delay and defer taking these small steps forward, the bigger they’re going to have to leapfrog in the future and they risk falling behind or being unable to cope when change inevitably comes knocking on their door,” he said.
Of course, it’s understandable that charities have some reservations. Online wills are new, bequests are a sensitive subject, and the legal intricacies can be confusing.
However, there are also clear signs that online wills are gaining wider acceptance within the Australian legal community.
The Victorian State Government owned company, State Trustees, went live with an online will offering for $50 recently. So too did Slater & Gordon, an almost-100-year-old law firm. Online wills have officially gone mainstream in Australia.
Michael Clohesy, national head of Gathered Here Legal, says online wills have finally found their niche and are moving from strength to strength.
“Online wills are not a replacement for professional estate planning advice,” he said. “They are, however, becoming an increasingly important tool that is vital in getting more Australians to prepare a will. As these platforms win greater buy-in, it’s likely that software will become more sophisticated and able to cater to a wider range of clients.”
Clohesy also noted that online wills are driving greater engagement with legacy giving, which isn’t typically a primary focus in more traditional estate planning.
“We’ve observed a significant uptake in charitable bequest giving,” he said. “That legacy directive isn’t as prevalent in traditional wills. Rarely do estate planning lawyers invite clients to include a charity or nonprofit in their will.”
Online wills aren’t the only catalyst for increased legacy giving. A number of sociological and economic changes are underway which are likely to drive greater levels of gifting.
A rising death rate, an impending generational wealth transfer, an increased percentage of Australians remaining child-free – these are just some of the sociological factors driving greater engagement with legacy giving.
Economic factors are present too and, although they’re more volatile than current sociological triggers, the signs are positive. Share prices are trending upwards and property prices are forecast for long-term growth.
Although fundraising professionals have no control over these drivers (it’s unlikely charities are going to orchestrate a nationwide coup to persuade Australians out of parenthood anytime soon) there is one driver that fundraisers can influence.
Charity marketing is pivotal to increasing gifts in wills as it’s arguably the most effective way to educate the general public about death planning and legacy giving.
Lucy McMorron is the head of partner success at Gathered Here and has almost 20 years’ experience in charity marketing and fundraising. She says charities should be the bell-ringers of emerging bequest tech, including online wills.
“Charities are uniquely positioned to be able to share innovations in will-writing with their supporter base, using marketing channels such as EDM, socials and telemarketing,” she said.
“By spreading the word about the ease and affordability of online wills, charities will not only help normalise end-of-life planning but also legacy giving.”
The potential impact can’t be understated. If the general public embraced death-planning as a must-do, millions more dollars could be funnelled into worthy causes via gifts in wills.
“It’s easy to imagine a future where writing a will is just another life-admin task, akin to registering a car or lodging a tax return,” said McMorron. “If we can reach that point, it will be transformational for charities.”
The future of online wills
Clearly, the future of online wills is undeniably optimistic (not to mention interesting). A new report, The Future of Online Wills and Bequests, delves into the subject, analysing various academic reports and leveraging insights from top industry experts.
You can get your free copy today, from Gathered Here.