• April 19, 2024
 Digital Transformation in the Estate Planning Sector

Digital Transformation in the Estate Planning Sector

Tom Stansfield from Willsuite, shares his views on technology in the wills and probate sector.

Over the last 30 years, the estate planning sector has transformed. We have seen the emergence of the ‘unregulated sector’, including two self-regulatory bodies as well as the traditional high street solicitor evolving too.

Technology plays a more prominent role in modern businesses and those who don’t integrate or incorporate technology into their working practices will be left behind. A concept eloquently encapsulated by Stephen Hawking, “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”.

To understand how this transformation has happened, we mapped out a timeline of the last 30 years of technological advancements which have had a positive impact on our sector.

Let’s start with accessibility.

The introduction of the world wide web by British born computer scientist – Tim Berners-Lee back in 1989 has transformed how we access legal services. We’re now better able to find legal services providers, to assess their suitability to help us, to assess their credentials, and make contact with them. From a business viewpoint, and according to TechRadar, over 60% of businesses now have a website and for many it’s their ‘shop window’. In the legal sector we would expect that more than 60% of businesses have a website.

Enabling them to demonstrate what puts them in a position of authority, many modern websites, being mobile friendly, enable customer and lead interaction, information capture and in some cases, an online customer journey, without the need for face to face interaction. This makes our journey (the legal process) much more akin to that of the life insurance industry for example, where a service can be purchased without the need  to speak to someone. Expect more of a shift in the legal sector in the coming months.

In the 90’s we also saw the introduction of the two self-regulatory bodies governing the profession of Will Writing, providing both a framework for self-regulation and championing consumer protection. Part of the work that has been done is around raising professional standards, we are working with both to provide software which meets the needs of the modern client. Being in a litigious society these institutions are also concerned about ensuring  that their members adhere to best practice when it comes to keeping comprehensive and detailed case files. The emergence of technology has changed the way that files are stored/maintained/recorded.  Client relationship management systems (CRMs) help solicitor practices and estate planning businesses keeping in touch with clients, as well as enabling them to provide regular updates and building relationships A process which was predominantly manual  30 years ago but is now more automated, saving businesses both time and money.

Another significant development took place back in 1999 which saw the introduction of the first Blackberry smartphone. Using this technology, business professionals who were used to using PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant) and who shifted to the blackberry got a glimpse of how we could start to run a business from a handheld electronic device. Something which is certainly taken for granted now. Fast forward twenty years, instructions can now be taken from clients on our phone or tablet, we can access our CRM system anywhere and on any device and almost all of our client communication can be managed on our phones.

A year later – in 2000, we saw the introduction of the first ever camera phone being introduced but uptake was reported to be slow in Europe and the costs for picture messaging were seen as prohibitive. This progression of the smartphone is something now widely used in estate planning and is certainly a part of personal daily life enabling us to capture priceless family moments, to share holiday snaps, and to communicate with loved ones on the other side of the globe. The integration of cameras now means that we’re able to host video calls, meetings and take photos of legal documents. This is particularly useful for activities such as taking a photo of the attestation page of Wills following their execution and to add these to our client files before we even get back to ‘the office’.

2006 prompted another advancement in the technology within the estate planning sector with the launch of Certainty – The National Will Register.  Fast forward 14 years, the register now stores the location of over 8.4 million Wills. This was a great step forward and enabled probate practitioners and lay executors to ensure they were dealing with the Last Will and Testament.

With the new age of technology adoption in full swing, there was an interesting development in legislation (but, in Australia) which saw deregulation of rules around formalities for communicating your wishes. Until 2006, these rules mirrored those in England and Wales but post 2006 an unsent text message was admissible as a Will. In England and Wales we are some way behind these progressive rules but the consultation paper from the Law Commission in 2018 gives hope that technology could play an ever greater part in estate planning. The new rules regarding remote attestations are seen by many as a step forward.

One of the most significant technological advancements in recent years is the emergence of new and revolutionary challenger banks and cryptocurrencies. Whilst cryptocurrencies haven’t become a mainstream payment method, the hype surrounding them certainly increased awareness about digital assets which have changed the make-up of our estate, the way we access money and even how we pay for things.

These digital assets make for additional challenges when considering estate planning and provision for estate administration. However, software solutions like WillSuite now enable testators the choice to appoint different executors to deal with digital assets and this is something that would never have been considered  30 years ago.

Additionally, the introduction of social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram in the early 2000’s has presented further complexities when it comes to estate administration. The closing of these accounts, the ability for our loved ones to be able to access the photos or memories held in the accounts and having nominated individuals all require consideration.

There have also been  cases where people have attempted to leave what they believed to be their digital assets to loved ones but turned out that these assets didn’t fall under the deceased’s estate and examples include their digital music library. It is expected that as subscription services like Spotify continue to grow, the issues surrounding who owns the music paid for in digital libraries will decrease. Nonetheless, these assets still have to be dealt with and our estate planning should encompass or give access for our executors to be able to deal with these assets or at least close the accounts. This would prevent stories in the press where for example a widow fought Apple to gain access to her husband’s iPhone family photos – Article HERE

Back in 2017 the HM Courts and Tribunal Services made a significant technological stride when they launched the online digital service enabling people to apply for the grant of probate however, at first this was only available to lay executors.

Back in 2015, around the same time of the launch of WillSuite, the digital doors opened for online Will service Farewill. Paving the way for clients to be able to access a digital Will solution, something Fare Will expanded since, prompting several businesses to offer a digital and ‘hands free’ online service to their clients from their website. The cost of developing technological solutions such as this has been prohibitive for smaller firms meaning that larger firms have been able to dominate in the online space. Nevertheless, Love Legal – a tech firm powered by the developers behind WillSuite launched a plug and play online Will Writing offering, making the service available to law firms and estate planning practices without the heavy costs of development. The expectation is that the development behind online platforms such as these will continue to grow and following the effects of COVID-19, many businesses will look  for further digital solutions enabling them to continue those touch points with clients or prospective clients.

There have been major strides made in the last 30 years and like it or lump it, practitioners have had to roll with the times. Perhaps what is more important is what will be happening over the next few years and what steps can be taken now to ensure that law firms and estate planning practices aren’t left behind. With that in mind, we believe that AI will play an even greater part in our estate planning and in the production of legal documents.

If asked right now what you could do to build a successful legal business which will be future proof, or at least stand up to the challenges we could be presented with, I would say, without hesitation, that you should automate as much of the client journey as possible.  This might include automating clients journeys and client communication, where possible – instruction taking, or document production, but do consider that automation will save time and resources meaning you can build a more scalable business in a short period of time.

I am planning further articles like this one and based on the discussions we are having with industry practitioners, we are building even more tools to make your business even more effective.

Today's Wills and Probate