As the COVID-19 crisis continues, the ability to complete end-of-life estate planning issues becomes more difficult unless you are able to execute legal documents online.
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Before the pandemic, only a handful of states would allow you to sign your legal documents online. In response to the pandemic, every state governor has issued executive orders to allow legal documents, including wills and other estate planning documents, to be signed electronically and, in some states, notarized remotely, so you can execute documents without having to present yourself in person with your lawyer or witnesses to validly execute your documents.
If using online signatures is available to you where you live, here are some things to consider as you decide whether to sign your documents the traditional way—with ink and pen and usually in person—or online, possibly even remotely.
Can You Sign Legal Documents Online?
Traditionally, if you wanted to sign a legal document like a lease or a will, you had to type the document on your computer. Next, you’d save the document in a computer file, print the document, sign it by hand with ink and then deliver it to other parties to sign by hand as well, unless all of the parties who needed to sign the document were together at one time. To have a valid will, this process has been required for centuries.
When computers were introduced, people who wanted legal documents were able to type their documents on a computer and save them on a computer file. They could then print out the documents and sign them by hand.
Since the advent of the internet, parties have been able to upload a document on a website, edit the document according to their needs, and then print out the document to sign. This has become a popular method for completing “do-it-yourself” online wills.
In 1999, a law called the Uniform Electronic Transaction Act (UETA) allowed people to use a computer to validate legally binding instruments, such as:
- Financial statements
- Business contracts
- Deeds to land
- Documents for closing on real estate
- Certain court filings
Although almost every state adopted this law, the law didn't include a will as one of the documents that you could sign electronically. If you were signing a will, you still had to sign the will by hand.
However, in 2003, in a case called Taylor v. Holt, the Supreme Court of Tennessee determined that someone could validly sign their will by typing their name onto the document using the cursive type on the computer to make their signature.
As recently as 2013, in a case called In re Estate of Javier Castro, a probate court in Ohio decided that someone who signed their will with a stylus on a Samsung Galaxy Tablet could validly execute a will.
In 2018, in a case called In re Estate of Horton, a Michigan court held that a man who typed his name into his phone as a signature to his suicide note had effectively signed what the court accepted as his will.
As a result of cases like these, four states adopted a law created in 2019 called the Uniform Electronic Wills Act (also known as the E-Wills Act). These states are:
The Uniform Electronic Wills Act allows you to legally execute your will by electronic signature, without using any paper or ink.
For many, the Act represents a sudden and drastic departure from the way legal documents—especially wills—have been signed. However, with every state temporarily allowing electronic or online signatures during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is expected that many states will adopt the E-Wills Act moving forward.
If you're ready to make a will online, whether with an online will maker or with a virtual appointment with an attorney, here are your options below.
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How to Sign Legal Documents Online
Depending on the type of legal document you want to sign and the laws applicable in your state, there are several ways you can sign documents online.
If you're thinking about signing a legal document online, especially a will, here’s how signing your document will work and several things you should consider when making your decision whether to sign your will online.
Step 1: Create your document
The first step to take to sign a document online is to complete an online document. You can do this by either:
- Creating your own document on your computer, which then can be signed online.
- Receiving a document online that allows for electronic signatures.
- Obtaining your document from an appropriate online service.
Step 2: Sign your document
Whether you created your own document on your computer or accessed an online document that allows you to sign electronically, there are various ways for you to legally sign your name online:
Typing your signature on your computer. If you want to electronically sign a document that is on a file on your computer, you may be able to sign it by typing your signature with scripted text, like the signer in Taylor v. Holt. You will need to be sure this satisfies the applicable law in your jurisdiction, especially if your document is a will.
Electronically signing a document you obtain online. Many documents that you obtain online, such as from an online will service or an online document that allows for e-signatures, can be signed electronically without having to print out the document and sign by hand.
This often is used for leases and documents needed for real estate closings. Some online will services allow you to sign your name online and execute your valid document without needing to print your document to sign.
Remotely signing your document electronically. Although all states temporarily allow for remote online signatures during the COVID-19 crisis, about half the states allow for remote online notarization (“RON”) of legal documents, which allows you to sign your documents remotely, out of the presence of the notary, with an audiovisual recording. With “RON” you may make your signature the traditional way (by hand) or online.
Step 3: Witness and/or notarize your document
For legal documents that use or require witnesses and/or a notary, especially wills, you may be able to use the same signature options that are described above.
However, the laws for electronic signatures for witnesses and remote online notary signatures can vary significantly by state. You should make sure you know what is allowed in your state for witness and notary signatures and follow the applicable rules very carefully.
Step 4: Store your document
After you sign your document and, if necessary, after your witnesses and notary sign your document, you should store your document electronically so that it may be filed when appropriate or retrieved when needed for future use.
Storing your document electronically also allows you to submit your document to other parties for online signatures without having to print it out. Instead, you may send the document electronically for other parties to follow the same steps for online signatures.
Signing legal documents online offers many advantages. However, there also are disadvantages to executing legal documents out of the presence of other parties to the document, witnesses, a notary, and especially, your lawyer.
Here are a few special considerations to think about before taking advantage of the benefits of signing your legal documents online.
Legal advice: When you sign legal documents online, it is often outside the presence of your attorney. This deprives you of the opportunity to obtain legal advice before signing, ask questions, and make sure you are following the correct procedures for signing. If you think you will have questions or need legal advice, you may not want to sign your legal documents online unless your lawyer is with you.
Convenience: Being able to sign a legal document online is convenient because you don't have to leave your home. The convenience may make you more inclined to execute important documents that you might not otherwise sign because it is too time-consuming or difficult. Under circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic, executing legal documents could be impossible without the ability to sign online.
Expense: Executing legal documents online can be a cost-saver. Being able to sign documents saves you from having to travel to be with other parties to sign and allows you to execute your documents without having to pay an attorney to be present.
The Time for Online Signatures is Here
The tradition of signing legal documents written on fancy paper with artistic, handwritten signatures may soon be a thing of the past. This may seem strange since, before the COVID-19 pandemic, only four states allowed electronic signatures of wills. However, almost all states allowed for online signatures of certain documents before the pandemic.
And with all states temporarily experimenting with remote online signatures out of necessity, we may find that when the pandemic passes, electronic and online signatures become standard protocol.
Before you take advantage of online legal documents, however, be sure that they're right for you. Although many more states will embrace online execution of legal documents, the traditional approach to signing legal documents with pen and paper will still be available. It's always good to have options, and online signatures now offer you another way to execute legal documents.