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Wills of the digital age

There are many reasons why Washington residents may have put off executing a will. Facing one's death is not always easy, and making decisions on the distribution of property to specific heirs can also be difficult. In addition, in many jurisdictions drafting a will has not kept up with technology. In fact, a high number of American who do not have wills. According to a Princeton Survey Research Associates survey in January 2017, 58 percent of adults in this country do not have a will.

Electronic wills are one of several technological developments that could come to estate planning. Nevada has allowed these wills while Florida is considering legislation governing their use. Even without express legal authority in the state, Ohio courts have approved the validity of these wills. Adopting this process in other jurisdictions, however, has not been a priority. Wills still must be physically printed and executed with signatures in Washington and most states.

While even paper wills may have been created with software and other electronic resources, an electronic will would eliminate the steps of physical printing and signature. For example, Nevada requires authentication of wills through unique methods such as retinal scans, voice recognition or digital signatures.

Electronic wills may be stored on hard drives and in the cloud. This could also eliminate the need for storing physical documents. Electronic wills will also be easier to locate and to share with family members, and other individuals who need to know about the inheritances will also have better access. However, these wills will be easier to forge or alter if sufficient safeguards are not imposed. When multiple wills are presented, it may be more difficult for courts to determine which will was the last one executed.

However, many courts are now paperless. Electronic safeguards are already being used to protect against forgeries and fraud. Procedures can also be implemented to make wills self-proving or valid by appearance. For paper wills in Washington, this normally requires signatures by two disinterested witnesses or affidavits. Florida, however, is considering a law that the testator electronically sign the will in front of two witnesses who must also e-sign it. However, it still needs to be notarized.

Regardless of the format, drafting a will often requires legal guidance. This need often grows with more complex estates. An attorney can help a testator prepare a valid will regardless of the legally-acceptable format.

Source: Palisades Hudson Financial Group LLC, "Can paperless wills encourage estate planning?," Larry M. Elkin, CPA, April 24, 2017

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