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Witnessing Wills by Video Link


Government relaxes rules on witnessing Wills during the Covid19 crisis

The UK Ministry of Justice has announced new rules on witnessing Wills. The rules will be introduced in September 2020 and backdated to 31st January 2020. The change allows a testator’s signature to be witnessed remotely through video conferencing systems, such as Zoom, Facetime, Skype, or similar.

Background to witnessing Wills by video

The Wills Act 1837 requires Wills in England and Wales to be signed in the presence of two witnesses. Until now that has meant the witnesses must be physically present when a testator signs their Will.

During the coronavirus lockdown this requirement has presented some difficulties due to the need to socially distance. Some legal professionals were suggesting to their clients to use video witnessing even though at that time doing so would not comply with the Wills Act. The new rule is, therefore, catching up with what has already been happening.

By backdating the rule the Government is allowing any Wills that were witnessed through video during the lockdown to be covered.

Is the change in the law really the solution?

Allowing witnesses to view a testator signing their Will through a video link seems like a solution but experts are questioning that view. Here are some reasons why:

  • There’s no evidence the witnesses actually see the testator signing.
  • Problems in getting the Will to the witnesses.
  • Video witnessed Wills may be more likely to be challenged.

Challenges to video-witnessed Wills

There is a growing concern amongst legal experts* that the change in the rules about witnessing Wills could lead to more Wills being contested. The concern is that Wills witnessed remotely are more likely to be made by people who are elderly or vulnerable. There could also be a greater opportunity for fraud.

Fraud and video-witnessed Wills

There is almost inevitably going to be a delay between the Testator signing their Will and the witnesses signing. That leaves opportunity for a forged Will to be slipped in. How can the witnesses be really sure the Will they sign is the one the testator signed? Where there is room for doubt there is room for suspicion.

How big could the risks be?

The risks created by witnessing Wills by video could be substantial. Families could lose an entire inheritance and/or suffer stress and heartache if a Will is challenged. The Government has included a time limit of two years for the relaxation of the witnessing rules. Unfortunately, that is long enough for a lot of Wills to be witnessed by video.

During the lockdown, many solicitors have been helping clients to complete their Wills the conventional way, without resorting to video witnessing. There are, however, increasing numbers of Will writing organisations that are now actively promoting witnessing by video as a solution to the Covid19 restrictions. This might be because they underestimate the risks or (perhaps more likely) for commercial reasons.

Solutions

If you really feel there is no alternative for you other than witnessing via video then seriously consider making another Will as soon as you can when it is safe for you to do so.


* Law Society Gazette – Witnessing Wills in Absentia