On 25th July 2020, it was announced that Wills witnessed remotely (i.e. over Zoom and Skype) are to be legalised, in a significant overhaul of probate legislation driven by Covid-19.
Up until now, The Wills Act of 1837 has meant that Wills must be signed in the physical presence of two witnesses.
What do the changes mean?
The new rules (which will be brought into effect by what is known in law as a ‘statutory instrument’) means that a person can have the signing of their Will witnessed using video conferencing software, such as Zoom, FaceTime or Skype.
Once the Will has been signed by the individual, it can then be posted to witnesses, who can then also sign the Will themselves virtually via video conferencing software.
When will this take place?
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has confirmed that the reforms will be backdated to 31 January 2020 – the date of the first confirmed Covid-19 case in the UK. This means that any Will witnessed by video technology from that date onwards that conforms with the new rules will be legally valid.
However, the changes will not be permanent. The MOJ has stated that the new rules will remain in place until 31st January 2022, or, until it is deemed necessary. After that point, Wills must return to being signed in the physical presence of witnesses.
The government’s official guidance note can be read here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/guidance-on-making-wills-using-video-conferencing
Is it a welcome change?
At Renaissance Legal, we welcome the change. We see first-hand the difficulties that can arise for families and loved ones when a person dies without a Will in place, and so we would always encourage an individual to make a Will regardless of their circumstances.
The unprecedented scenario of not being able to have face-to-face contact as a result of Coronavirus, which we know disproportionately impacts the elderly and the vulnerable, means that making a legally binding Will is simply impossible without the effective use of technology.
It is an enormous comfort to individuals and their families, to know that their last wishes have been properly recorder and will be honoured.
A note of caution
Despite us welcoming the reforms, and seeing how it will undoubtedly help many of our clients, we must share a note of great caution. We are concerned that the ability to sign a Will remotely may lead to an increase in probate litigation. When a lawyer witnesses a Will being signed face-to-face, they would see the individual alone to be sure that the person is acting without any undue influence. This is harder to ensure with video conferencing, as it is impossible for the lawyer to see what may be happening ‘off-camera’. There may also be potential problems if people undertake this signing process without a lawyer being involved as there are very strict procedural rules which need to be followed. Failure to follow these rules could mean that the Will is invalid.
In a recent article in The Law Society Gazette, The Law Society shared our view of positivity but with a cautionary note , saying the changes will ‘help alleviate the difficulties that some members of the public have encountered when making Wills during the pandemic’. It went on to say that the government needs to ensure the legislation is properly drafted ‘to minimise unintended consequences and ensure validity’.
What are we doing?
We put the safety of our team and clients first and are following government guidance. We are now welcoming clients into the office to sign Wills and we are making visits to people in their homes and carer homes where this can be done safely.
People can still witness Wills through a window, in a corridor or in an outdoor space, as long as they can see the signing taking place. We would therefore suggest that video conferencing to sign Wills is used as a last resort, where Will signing is urgently needed and a face-to-face meeting is not possible.
How Renaissance Legal can help
For more information on Wills or to speak to us about the cost of writing a new Will or updating an existing one, please do not hesitate to contact us. We also provide Trustee and Executor services, for more information click here.