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Just how effective are online end-of-life plans?

Gregory A. Lang

These days, most of us probably don't give a second thought to the idea of logging onto the Internet to purchase clothes, rent a movie, apply for a job or even file our taxes. In fact, it is precisely because of this relative comfort and familiarity with the Internet that more and more diverse services are now being offered digitally to consumers.

To illustrate, consider the recent proliferation of websites offering people the ability to craft so-called "end-of-life plans" that purport to cover all of their wishes in the event of their demise.

It's important to understand that "end-of-life plan" isn't just another term for estate planning, rather it's a comprehensive tool that its founders say enables people to plan every last detail of their passing.

In general, websites offering end-of-life plans start by asking the user a series of questions to learn more about their background and their unique circumstances.

This information, in turn, is then used to create a virtual checklist complete with a set of instructions. Here, the checklist may recommend everything from creating a will to executing a power of attorney, perhaps directing a person to an online legal service to accomplish this.

In exchange for a monthly fee, the website might also provide the user with the opportunity to upload any and all manner of documents to be stored in one place for future access by designated persons. These documents could cover everything from life insurance policies and financial accounts to funeral plans and online passwords.

While these websites are truly remarkable, they do present some concerns. For example, experts have raised concerns about cyber security given the wealth of personal information available to hackers and what amounts to an absence of a legal fiduciary responsibility on the part of the website.

Another concern is that these websites often direct users to online legal services that specialize in creating generalized estate planning documents that may not adequately cover all of a person's pressing needs. Furthermore, these documents may fail to account for changes in life circumstances further down the line.

While it's truly impressive to see how the notion of planning for one's passing is evolving in the digital area, the fact remains that we may not yet be at a point where these websites can be fully relied upon to ensure that your exact estate planning wishes are honored and the burden of your passing on your heirs is minimized.

In other words, there is perhaps still no substitute for meeting face-to-face with an experienced legal and/or financial professional to plan for the future.

Source: The New York Times, "Navigating the logistics of death ahead of time," Tara Siegel Bernard, March 28, 2014

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