With coronavirus posing a real threat to the world, people are understandably thinking about their own mortality more than usual.
Law firms in the UK have reported surges in interest from those who want to make, or update, their wills. Slater and Gordon has witnessed a “significant spike in enquiries” and more than double the usual number of calls. While Kieran Bowe, from Russell-Cooke Solicitors in Kingston, has seen “exceptional demand” for wills in recent weeks.
However, the lockdown and strict social-distancing measures in place in the UK have created issues, said Michael Knott, head of the wills team at Slater and Gordon.
“We can still communicate with customers without face-to-face meetings, but the current situation has thrown up challenges in terms of how those who are self-isolating are able to get their wills witnessed,” he told HuffPost UK.
The law states that documents must be signed by two people who are neither relatives nor beneficiaries of the will – so it’s highly likely they won’t be part of the household. The witnessing of such documents must also be done in person.
Bowe is currently advising clients on how they may be able to sign wills safely, taking social-distancing measures into account. “For many, however, it will not be possible under the present rules to sign their wills in a safe environment,” he said.
This is something organisations are calling to change. Professional bodies including The Law Society and STEP (Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners) called on the Ministry of Justice to temporarily relax the rules for signing wills during this period. But it’s unclear how this would work.
HuffPost UK understands options being looked at included: allowing people to witness will-signings through online conference calls, reducing the number of witnesses needed, or allowing people to sign their own will without witnesses.
“For many, it will not be possible under the present rules to sign their wills in a safe environment.”
James McNeile, a partner at Royds Withy King Solicitors, suggested legislation could be used that mirrors the process of creating wills for people in the army.
Section 11 of the Wills Act 1837 enables members of the armed forces to draw up a will quickly when they don’t have the time, resources, or capabilities to comply with the formalities needed, McNeile told The Law Society Gazette. This means soldiers are able to make either a written or oral will and, if written, there’s no requirement for witnesses.
But it’s not as simple as changing the law to make it easier for people to have wills lawfully signed off. Care must be taken so changes aren’t made that could open up the system – and therefore vulnerable people – to abuse.
“We must protect against fraud,” said Knott. “Sectors such as investment and banking have managed to make the switch to online securely and I believe we will have to in the future – perhaps sooner than we think.”
STEP has urged the government to take action imminently, warning that “if people sign wills without witnesses, or use video conferencing or any other variations, they risk the will being invalid or ineffective”.
But a Ministry of Justice spokesperson told HuffPost UK there are “no current plans” to change the law.
“This is a delicate area of law and we absolutely must continue to protect the elderly and vulnerable against potential undue influence and fraud,” they 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.”
What can you do in the meantime?
Right now, there’s no ‘virtual’ solution. Wills can’t be witnessed and signed via email or video communications such as Skype.
Slater and Gordon is advising clients that signatures will still be valid as long as each party can see the other sign – “either, for example, by watching through a doorway or window, or outside from a safe distance,” said Knott.
For some, it might be possible to enlist neighbours and arrange a situation where everyone is able to see each other while maintaining a safe, two-metre distance. But for others, for example vulnerable people or those confined to their bed, this isn’t possible.
“There is a strict process that still needs be followed with this and so, if they are at all unsure, it is important they seek legal advice,” said Knott. “We recognise this isn’t ideal but at the moment it is necessary for the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved.”
Things to know before writing a will
Will writing isn’t a regulated activity, so anybody can offer their services to write one. Look out for relevant qualifications: members of STEP or SFE (Solicitors for the Elderly), for example.
Before appointing a will writer, read their terms and conditions carefully – some T&Cs appoint the will writer as executors and/or as administrators of the estate, which can result in inflated costs for these services later down the line.
If you have complex circumstances – for example, you have children from previous marriages, multiple properties or properties abroad – you should also speak to a qualified advisor.
Those signing wills at home should carefully follow the instructions provided by the solicitor or will writer to ensure the document is legally effective and binding.
As it stands, for a will to be valid: it must be in writing, signed by you and witnessed by two persons who are over 18 years of age; you must understand the document and the effect it will have; and you must be making it of your own free will.