Legacy planning and will writing during the coronavirus pandemic08 April 2020
How to stay safe while signing wills and other important documents.
It can be a difficult subject, but the current coronavirus crisis has focused the importance of will creation and legacy planning in many people’s minds, and will writers are reporting surges in business as individuals seek to get their affairs in order. Alongside increased requests to update or create wills, or establish lasting power of attorney, there’s likely to be more pressure on funeral directors and estate administration providers in the coming months.
The coronavirus pandemic has also unfortunately highlighted some of the inflexibilities of existing UK laws around wills and inheritances.
One of the biggest challenges is the requirement for many documents to have an original witnessed signature. This means that an individual must sign a document, in person, in front of a specified number of witnesses, usually one or two. The witness or witnesses are then required to sign the document as well, declaring they have seen it signed by the individual.
In England and Wales, for example, a will is only valid if it is signed in the presence of two witnesses (both present at the signing rather than at different times) who are older than 18.
Given the need for social distancing during the coronavirus crisis, questions have arisen about how to safely – and legally – satisfy the requirements.
While not normally ideal, it may be possible to have someone who you are isolating with at home serve as a witness. HM Land Registry, for one, allows certain close family members to witness documents – provided they are not one of the parties named in the document. If you are in this situation, it’s best to consult a legal professional beforehand to ensure the person you have available is a suitable witness.
Another solution is contacting a neighbour and asking them to serve as a witness while you both comply with social distancing and good hygiene measures. Arrange a time to meet outside during your permitted period of daily exercise, keeping away from others and at least two metres apart from each other at all times. Each person should bring their own pen in the same colour and wear disposable gloves or other protective equipment when handling the document.
Sign the document, ensuring your neighbour is able to see you do it, then move away so your neighbour can sign as witness – and that you can still see them sign as well. Remember, both parties need to sign the document on the same occasion.
There is some discussion about whether witnessing through a window is acceptable. It’s currently not clear if this will be legally valid so is best avoided. Additionally, even in today’s modern age, witnessing over a digital platform like Skype or FaceTime is not typically permitted. That said, the Law Society of Scotland has advised that video conference calls can temporarily be used in many cases for taking a client’s instructions and witnessing.
Contact on a case-by-case basis only
Estate administration services, including ensuring people receive inheritances, have been less affected, as technology has enabled many to remain operational during the COVID-19 restrictions.
However, the safety of families must take priority, so professionals should be taking precautions to ensure they only send out the bare minimum of documents, namely those for which an original signature is the only legally valid option. At Kings Court Trust, we are carefully reviewing the need for a document to be sent out on a case-by-case basis, and we are advising clients to do the same.
Many legal professionals are calling for the UK government to review and relax current laws, such as reducing the number of witnesses required on a will down to one, and to explore options that allow witnessing via digital video call or recording technology.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “While there are no current plans to change the law, we will consider all options and keep this under review during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Looking ahead to a post-coronavirus world, it’s difficult to predict what the industry might look like. We hope it will come out stronger, more efficient and more digitally savvy – with clients at its heart.
Have a question about will writing, later-life planning or Inheritance Tax? Whatever you need, your St. James’s Place Partner is there to help. Just ask.
Advice relating to writing a Will, or Lasting Powers of Attorney or Estate Administration Services, involves the referral to services that are separate and distinct to those offered by St. James’s Place and are not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.