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"Do you have a will?"
For 68% of Americans, the answer is "no." Wills combine two powerful sources of anxiety: mortality and legal paperwork. As a result, millions die without a record of their last wishes, leaving billions in unclaimed funds and countless moments of heartbreak for their loved ones. That's why Heirloom, a new digital will service launched by Academy graduates, seeks to cut through that emotional and legal red tape to make it easy for anyone to make a will.
For Heirloom co-founder and Academy alumna Emma Reynolds, the stakes are acutely personal.
"My uncle died without a will," she explains. "And I watched my dad spend a couple years going through a pretty horrendous paper-based burdensome process to sort out his estate."
Even though Reynolds' uncle had an uncomplicated estate -- a house and a car -- her father spent two years untangling it through his grief at his passing. That experience stuck with Reynolds, who soon discovered that her father's experience was anything but unique.
MSIDBT student Emma Reynolds
"Almost everyone you talk to has a will story," according to Reynolds. She watched her best friend struggle to settle a parent's estate from another country and heard countless tales of missing or absent family wills. One colleague even recounted his time at an estate planning firm where every day, he would receive more than a dozen calls from family members cold-calling firms out of the phone book, frantically hoping that their loved one had left a will with them.
The problem nagged at Reynolds for years, as she commissioned researchers to try to understand why people didn't get wills. By the time she joined the Iovine and Young Academy as a graduate student in 2018, she was fired up to find co-founders and create a service that made it easy for real people to make a will. She met Ben Carpels in the program, and they brought on web developer Justin Hicks to build it. Though the team assembled in early 2020, the COVID pandemic and remote learning meant that the team created, refined and launched their product without ever meeting in person.
"I don't think we'd be here without the program,” says Reynolds. “I wouldn't have met Ben or Justin, we wouldn't have launched."
Feedback from professors and peers during the Academy process also catalyzed a transformation in Heirloom's model that sets it apart from other digital legal services: review and validation by a lawyer to ensure that the will isn't vulnerable to contest. Though costs remain much lower than traditional estate planning, their model allows Heirloom to work with, rather than against, the incumbents that the service disrupts.
Heirloom is unique for more than its collaboration with traditional firms, though. The digital legal service pays unprecedented attention to streamlining the user experience.
"You spend five minutes on Legal Zoom and tell me how you feel with the complexity, with the number of clicks, with the number of choices, with the sheer amount of content overload. It makes you just click out!" Reynolds says.
The team wanted to ensure that Heirloom's will-making process was easy enough that people would not flinch away from daunting paperwork requirements or heavy reminders of mortality.
"It's approachable, it's calm. We've made a topic that is complex very easy," Reynolds says.
As easy as Heirloom is to use, the team itself has weathered its share of challenges, including the weather itself. The day before Heirloom's planned launch on February 14, a snowstorm blanketed Texas and shut off power to web developer Justin Hicks. Without power, he couldn't code, and the team counted down the hours. Only the team's painstaking prep work allowed Heirloom to launch without delay.
"What really helped was all the microsessions that we had together leading up to that," Hicks explains. "As a team, the chemistry has been phenomenal in terms of what responsibility lies on whom, and what to get done." As a result, Heirloom launched on schedule despite the harrowing circumstances, and the service even secured its first customer.
With the website launched, the team is already looking ahead to future Heirloom services. Next on the agenda are power of attorney and health care directives, all validated by their network of attorneys who work in partnership with Heirloom. Every change and upgrade brings the Heirloom team closer to their goal: ensuring that everyone gets a will.
"Everyone needs a will," Carpels insists. "You don't need to be a certain age, a certain income, a certain wealth. Everyone needs a will. You'll feel the peace of mind."