Blog: Virtual will signings – Cygnet Law

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Blog: Virtual will signings

COVID-19 has changed the way we live our lives, and certainly the way we work. One of our private client solicitors, Louise White, talks about the changes in will making, including the introduction of virtual will signings, and how this will affect us once they are introduced.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, we woke up to a world completely different from that we had known and the realities of what was important to people quickly became apparent. 

“For many people, having a valid will in place provides reassurance that their assets will be properly dealt with once they pass away. For some, the nature of the pandemic meant that they wanted to ensure their wishes were recorded so that they could shield at home without additional worry. For others, the pandemic allowed them the time to consider something which is all too often set aside for a later date –what happens when we die.

“The Wills Act 1837 requires a person’s will to be witnessed by two people who are physically present while the individual (testator) signs. This can normally be dealt with quite quickly with the testator adding their signature to their will followed by both witnesses signing and adding their details to the document, which is then dated. The will is then valid and stored for a later date with the testator having peace of mind that their affairs are in order.

“The reality of a life in lockdown and strict social distancing measures meant that this was not necessarily the easiest of matters to tend to.

“In a bid to make this process more accessible, the government have announced a plan to temporarily change the rules regarding the way the will needs to be witnessed. The new rules, which come into effect in September, allow for wills to be witnessed by video link with the signature of the testator being witnessed remotely. The will can then be sent to the witnesses and the process repeated until all three signatures have been placed on the document and the will is valid.

“On the face of it, this approach seems to offer a new level of flexibility, which sounds promising in light of the recent difficulties we have all faced. On closer consideration, however, it is arguably creating a much more complicated process. Once the testator has signed the will during a video call, this then needs to reach the witnesses, and everyone needs to engage in further video calls whilst each witness signs the document.

“This approach will make the process much longer and less certain – you will recall the delays experienced throughout the postal service through the early part of the pandemic with people often waiting weeks rather than days for their post to arrive. A will is not valid until properly executed, meaning that these delays can be extremely unsettling to an individual who simply wishes to ensure their affairs are in order. Documents being lost in the post, arranging suitable times for everyone to participate and the all too familiar difficulty of using various technologies are just some potential complications.

“It has been announced that the new rules are to be back dated to the 31 January 2020, being the date of the first case of coronavirus in the UK. Again, in theory this sounds great, meaning that documents can be dealt with in this way immediately however until the rules are fully available, it is not possible to know whether you have complied with any specific requirements leading to the question of “what if you haven’t fully complied?”

“A will is an extremely important, personal document and we must ensure that the instructions given to us are our client’s own and that they are not being pressured by anyone in to taking steps they are not fully comfortable with. Our face to face appointments allow us time to discuss everything with our client and make sure that they are comfortable with the process. By removing this personal touch, a level of protection to the testator is arguably removed. It could be argued that an individual is with the testator, perhaps off camera, placing pressure on them to proceed. In turn, this could result in more challenges to the estate being made in the future suggesting that the testator was under undue influence.

“When you think about this, it makes you wonder if it really is the easiest way?

“For the will to be signed by all parties, the testator will either need to post this, deliver this or have this collected which raises the question of why instead the document could not be executed in a socially distanced manner allowing the document to be formalised within the day. To do this would avoid the above risks and complications and means that the testator can confidently deal with this matter without added worry of a lengthy process.

“Cygnet Law has operated happily within our community for many years and places value on the personal service we can offer. We understand that for many, making a will can be a daunting process and we do not want to add any additional stress or worry to our clients and so have used every creative solution and improvisation we could think of to make sure that our client’s documents are tended to in a safe and efficient way. We have witnessed wills through windows, from driveways and in gardens and feel reassured knowing we were there to talk our Client’s through this process.”