Michael Ellis used a lawyer to make a simple will when he was young.
And as Mr. Ellis, now the chief executive of Information Systems International, entered into business partnerships and investments, he realized that his basic will was no longer sufficient for his more complex financial life.
But instead of going to a lawyer who might have charged him tens of thousands of dollars, Mr. Ellis, 56, turned to an online service and created a new will himself.
“It was simple,” he said. “You want to take care of people, but also the causes in life you’ve cared about.”
Mr. Ellis used a site called FreeWill, which begins the estate planning conversation with options around charitable giving. But there are many online competitors, including Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom, that offer services to create estate plans for little or no money. Some offer a lawyer to talk to free of charge.
Wills can be time-consuming and costly, so creating a simpler, cheaper process was a driving force behind these online sites. But without the expertise of a lawyer, you should determine whether the services are right for you.
How good the services are depends on your perspective. For someone like Aretha Franklin, who died last month without a will, the complexity and amount of assets would necessitate an experienced estate lawyer. But she did not have even a basic will, leaving her reported $80 million estate to go through probate, a process that any estate lawyer would make sure a client avoided.
Other music legends, like Kurt Cobain and Prince, also died without wills.
Many Americans can claim kinship with these famous performers in that they probably don’t have a will, either. Nearly 60 percent of Americans have no will, according to a survey this year by Caring.com. And that percentage is higher for people who have dependent children and are most in need of a guide to parcel out their assets should they die while their children are young.
Patrick Schmitt, co-founder and co-chief executive of FreeWill, said he set out to offer wills that were easy to create and update. Users would be allowed to name heirs and leave money to charities.
FreeWill costs its users nothing, but it makes its money from the charitable institutions that pay a fee for using the FreeWill service to reach out to donors.
Mr. Schmitt, who during the Obama administration worked on the Democratic National Committee’s midterm fund-raising team, which relied heavily on technology, said he created the site out of frustration. He wanted to write a quick will before taking a trip abroad, leaving his assets to some favorite charities, but he found the existing services cumbersome.
“I had run email fund-raising for President Obama in 2009 and 2010,” he said. “That whole crew put thousands of hours into making it really easy for you to give $27. That it was so hard to give 2,000 times that amount was a light-bulb moment for me.”
Charley Moore, chief executive of Rocket Lawyer, said that site was designed to be easy to use and offer a simple way for people who needed help to connect with a lawyer.
Rocket Lawyer follows a simple tenet of these sites: Offer free or low-priced services. For a subscription fee of $40 a month, users can work through an array of personal and business legal documents on their own. If questions arise, a lawyer can provide answers online.
Actual time talking with a lawyer who can advise them based on their location and type of question is billed at an hourly rate, and members receive a 40 percent discount.
“We want people to take advantage of an attorney when they have more complex needs,” Mr. Moore said. “There are times you can treat yourself for a simple cold with over-the-counter medication. There are other times when you have appendicitis and you should go see a doctor.”
Another competitor, LegalZoom, bundles conversations with a lawyer into annual packages. Its estate-plan bundle, which includes a will, a trust, a power of attorney and a heath-care proxy, costs between $149 and $349, but includes a year of access to a lawyer without an additional charge.
Chas Rampenthal, general counsel at LegalZoom, said most people would never need to consult an expensive lawyer. “The $1,200-an-hour person is solving complex multijurisdictional tax plans,” he said. “You can find a competent estate planning attorney who will charge $200 to $250 an hour.”
Beth Wolfer, 55, a single mother of three in Salt Lake City, said she needed a will that cost less than that. After testing out various online sites, she settled on FreeWill because as a fund-raiser for Best Friends Animal Society she wanted to offer it to donors as a way to raise money.
Ms. Wolfer said she finished her will in less than an hour, and then had it signed by three witnesses and notarized. Instead of putting it in the vault of a law firm, she handed copies to her daughters and the charities that would receive money upon her death.
Legal practitioners disagree over to what degree technology can substitute for an estate lawyer. Because most Americans do not have a will, laying out their wishes in an online document is generally a good idea. But there are drawbacks, some say.
Even if clients need only a simple will, the online services may miss some nuances, said Richard A. Behrendt, a trust and estates lawyer outside Milwaukee.
“There are so many things that can be done improperly or planning opportunities that could be overlooked if you’re just sitting at your computer trying to make a one-size-fits-all will work for you,” he said.
For one, the online software program may not be asking the right questions or understanding your responses.
Mr. Behrendt, who charges about $2,000 for a complete estate plan — which includes a will and trust but also a power of attorney and a health care proxy — has seen a range of situations in his career.
“Sometimes the role of the estate planner is to play devil’s advocate and push back,” Mr. Behrendt said. “Often, if you prod clients and ask the right questions, they say, ‘Ah, I hadn’t thought of that.’ You can’t get there just doing it in a software program.”
And he argued that saving a few thousand dollars may prove more costly in the end if assets are not distributed properly or if they end up causing harm to people who receive them.
Still, he understands the reluctance to pay lawyers’ fees. It is common for estate planning fees to run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
The ease of use these online services offer encourage more people to set up wills, which can be a boon to charitable organizations, which get a chance to know their potential donors. Charitable gifts left through estate plans accounted for $35.7 billion in 2017, up 2.3 percent from the year before, according to a Giving USA report released in the spring.
Brian Peterson, the director of legacy and gift planning at Human Rights Watch, said research in the area of planned giving showed that most people put charitable gifts into their final will, which they make in their late 70s or early 80s.
But he also pointed to a report by Russell James III, a professor at Texas Tech University and an expert in planned giving, that said about half of people who put a charitable organization in their wills decided at some point to switch to a different beneficiary. By knowing that people are thinking of leaving it money, a nonprofit organization can cultivate relationships with them, and ensure that the prospective donors are confident their bequest would go to a worthy cause.
“These gifts are revocable, and people have the right to change their mind,” Mr. Peterson said. “The good thing about services like FreeWill is they’ve at least done it once. It’s written down somewhere.”