- The UK government plans to bring certain changes to the existing law to allow remote or virtual witnessing of wills
- The decision to allow virtual witness of will till January 2022 will remove the hurdles that some citizens have faced while creating wills during the coronavirus pandemic
- Given the social distancing norms, people who are in self-isolation and wish to record their wills can do it on video link platforms such as Zoom or FaceTime
The outbreak of coronavirus-led pandemic has thrown challenges on various fronts. In addition to the health and economic crisis, the self-isolation and social distancing related regulation to protect the citizens from the risk of getting infected had left people opting to prepare their wills with hurdles on the witnessing front. In its efforts to make things easier for people deciding to record their wills or final wishes, the government recently came out with a solution. It is going to bring amendments to the existing Wills Act 1837 that mandates signing of wills in the physical presence of two witnesses, to allow either physical presence or remote and virtual witnessing of wills.
Alteration in the present laws
The changes in the law to legalise such witnessing will be applicable for England and Wales. The government has announced that the alterations will be backdated to 31 January 2020 and will bring the legislation via a statutory instrument in September 2020. The date of 31 January 2020 holds special significance as the UK reported its first case of confirmed Covid-19 infected patient on this day. The authorities will acknowledge any will witnessed by video from this date onwards as legal proof. Adding that the modifications will remain valid till January 2022 or any date before or beyond as considered necessary, the government clarified that after this point, the process would return as previous of wills being made with witnesses who show physical presence.
The government has indicated that there could be wider reforms in the long-term regarding the law on making wills and considers responding to an upcoming report from the Law Commission. It is to be noted that the government had discussed with the commission to formulate its response to the video witnessing issue.
The role of technology
Technology has been regarded as a great facilitator for people to carry on with their lives and institutions to conduct day to day businesses since the outbreak of the pandemic. One such widely used technology, video linking, has come to the rescue here as well. Given the social distancing norms, people who are in self-isolation and wish to record their wills or last wishes can do it on video link platforms such as Zoom or FaceTime. Assuring the citizens that wills witnessed by using such software solutions will be considered legal. However, the quality of the content, including both audio and video are satisfactory to hear, see, and understand properly on what is happening at the time of recording the witnessing process. In addition, the government stipulated the need of two witnesses, considered as an important defence against any unnecessary influence or fraud.
Several legal experts welcome the government’s new amendments to the existing law and approve the usage of video technology for the intended purpose. However, the government stated that video-witnessing should only be used as a last way out amid the advice that wherever possible to have the presence of physical witnesses with safety, people should prefer to have physical witnessing of their wills. The law firms are geared to visit their clients’ place to witness the signing of wills in a safe area while following necessary social distancing norms. Wills witnessed through this window are already considered legitimate in law as long as they have a clear sight of the person signing it.
Important observations and views of experts
Observing that an increased number of people are taking the necessary measure to plan for their future by creating a will, Robert James Buckland QC, a noted politician (Member of Parliament) and barrister serving as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor since 2019, highlighted that the pandemic has made will making the process difficult. He mentioned that this is the reason behind the government’s move to legalise the wills witnessed via video technology, by bringing necessary changes in the law. Believing that this initiative will specially protect the elderly and vulnerable, the Lord Chancellor further stated that it would bring in the sense of relaxation that the current pandemic situation cannot deter them to initiate the process of making a will.
Expressing confidence that the government’s decision will remove the hurdles in will-making process for many citizens during the pandemic, the Law Society of England and Wales was especially happy to note the guidance presented to check fraud and abuse. The Law Society said that it looks forward to working with the government in coming times to help the reform achieve strength and success.
The rise in number of people deciding to create their wills
The outbreak of coronavirus pandemic has forced people to think about the mortality issue, resulting in an increased number of people thinking about creating wills or last wishes. According to an estimate, during mid-March 2020, the UK has recorded approximately 30 per cent rise in the number of people (especially those undergoing treatment and feared the risk of infection) who sought advice on writing new wills or grant power of attorney to plan for future. But as strict social distancing advisory and lockdown came in the way of people actually doing it, several law firms gradually came up with solutions to keep advising their clients on such an important service.
At a time of such unprecedented health challenges that have brought the risk of infection to anyone anytime, the elderly and people with co-morbidities are the most vulnerable ones to catch the Covid-19 infection. The crisis leaves with little option than other things to plan for creating a will to save the future. Several experts believe that the government’s plan to make video witnessing of wills legal will encourage more such people to undertake the will-making process. While it remains to be seen how the new changes would evolve in coming times, definitely is a truth that the pandemic has necessitated changes in the old and proven laws, even if it is for a limited period of time.
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