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Startup lobbies for legalization of e-wills

Molly Hulsey //January 31, 2022//

Startup lobbies for legalization of e-wills

Molly Hulsey //January 31, 2022//

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The strongest competitors for Greenville entrepreneurs Tyler McLeod and Erick Arbé are California giants Trust and Will and LegalZoom.

These online legal platform sites wield a respective 65 to 1,000 employees. Upstate-based Willio has two. 

But that isn’t stopping the startup’s founders from pursuing the next comparable tier of digital services — even if they are now illegal in South Carolina.

In 2019, McLeod and Arbé, a tax attorney and a former pro golfer-turned-designer, launched a blockchain-powered site that enables customers to build a will in 20 to 40 minutes, according to the duo. 

“Willio’s goal is to help people by making wills easier, more accessible and more affordable for a greater number of people,” McLeod said in a statement. “Online estate plans can be very beneficial, but not all wills are created equal.”

McLeod’s first taste of opportunities offered by online wills came, more or less, at Smiley’s Acoustic Café.

And it left a sour taste in his mouth.

McLeod, then a full-time attorney, happened to sit next to a tipsy customer who had one too many opinions that night.

When the stranger asked McLeod what he did, McLeod shared that he was an estate planner, which released a torrent of predictions. 

The gist: “Don’t you know your job will be replaced by algorithms in a couple years?” asked the stranger. 

McLeod couldn’t stop thinking that maybe his unsolicited drinking companion was right after all. But if anyone was going to take his job, he was going to be the one to do it.

That was in 2017. In 2019, he hired on Arbé as a software developer, while he continued to work as a partner for Brown, Massey, Evans, McLeod and Haynesworth. 

In November 2021, Willio took its services to a national audience.

The duo doesn’t plan on expanding their services beyond wills and powers of attorney like LegalZoom, which also offers remote consulting, trademark and copyright registration and business establishment services. It also doesn’t want refer users to specific charities or push life insurance sales.

If you stay in your lane, McLeod said, you create better opportunity for sustainable growth and development.

The company is lobbying instead to bring the entire estate planning process online from start to finish.

Willio customers can create their will online but – in South Carolina at least – it must be first printed out, signed in pen and notarized in person as witnesses stand by. In the Palmetto State, the only valid will is an analog one.

But in an era when real estate transactions and patient intake forms can be signed online, McLeod and Arbé argue that South Carolina’s law inhibits many young parents – and that includes the adoptive parents of Felix and Fido, who can bequeath funds to a pet guardian – from taking the time to finalize a will.

A single electronic copy helps prevent families from misplacing a will, they told GSA Business Report, while blockchain technology and encryption help evade forgery and fraud with a digital trail.

Only a handful of states have been early adopters of the electronic wills: Florida, Indiana, Nevada and Arizona. According to Trust and Will, some states have accepted remote witnesses on a case-by-case basis due to COVID-19. 

Colorado, North Dakota, Washington and Utah have adopted the Uniform Electronic Wills Act since 2020, which allows probate courts to give digital wills legal validity if a state legislature opts in. States are then able to decide whether an estate holder’s electronic signature can also be witnessed remotely.

McLeod helped the Uniform Law Commission draft the act, which was also introduced this year in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

Closer to home the entrepreneur has championed digital estate planning practices on the state of South Carolina’s Electronic Will Committee.

Last May, Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law the S.C. Electronic Notary Public Act, which may establish the infrastructure for the legalization of electronic wills in the future.

The act allows public notaries to also go digital if requested and lays out requirements for going digital. 

Requirements include a course and exam. Online vendors must also be approved by Secretary of State Mark Hammond, who expects other stipulations to be finalized by spring 2022.

“I am pleased that electronic notarization will now be an option for South Carolina notaries, as technology evolves and more transactions are recorded electronically,” Hammond said in a news release. “Once the regulations are passed, I hope that our commissioned notaries public will register as electronic notaries and begin offering these services to South Carolinians.”

Provisions for remote notarization are not included under the legislation, but advocates say it’s a start. 

In other words, qualified notaries will be able to sign electronic signatures with an electronic seal but only when in the physical presence of the signator.

“In-person electronic notary could be seen as a baby step in the direction of remote online notary,” Nashiba Boyd, a Columbia attorney with Gaffney-Lewis LLC, said in a statement. “But it would need to overcome resistance from lawyers and others who fear abuse of remote notarization. South Carolina real estate lawyers, for example, have long opposed remote notarization out of concern that notaries, not lawyers, will supervise closings.”

As far as the Electronic Notary Public Act goes, however, nothing overturns the current state law requiring a licensed attorney to oversee the closure of a property, according to Boyd.