Why Video Witnessing has Become a Game Changer for the Wills and Probate Sector

The global pandemic has been a game changer for all kinds of industries in 2020, and the effects on the wills and probate sector have also been significant. Making a will has become less of an onerous admin task, which people know they should get to but repeatedly put off, and more of an urgent responsibility because who knows what the future holds.

While, for some, the increased emphasis on making a will and getting their financial affairs in order may be about an increased sense of their own mortality, for many, the shift in priorities is simply about regaining control. 2020 has been a year when the normal rules of decision making and self-determination across so many areas of our lives have been stripped away, but making a will is a positive step towards planning for the future and protecting loved ones.

In the initial period of the pandemic, the surge in demand for wills was difficult to manage because of lockdown restrictions. While guidance on will writing decisions could be carried out over the telephone or video calls, witnessing wills was much more challenging.

The Government recognised that this practical hurdle was leaving families exposed and creating unnecessary stress. The situation also created an obstacle for will writing and estates planning professionals at a time when demand for services is high and awareness of the importance of putting a will in place has never been greater. Video witnessing of wills was passed into legislation for England and Wales in September. More importantly, legality of video witnessing has been backdated to January 2020, which means those professionals who were in the process of completing a will for clients when the pandemic hit, can now complete the process. The legislation calls for use of video technology to remain an option of last resort, however, with physical witnessing of wills being the preferred choice where it is safe to do so. It also reiterates that witnessing through windows is already legitimate, as long the professional has clear sight of the person signing the document.

Realising the Benefits of Video Witnessing

Although COVID-19 measures have been eased in some areas of the country and ramped up in others, the video witnessing legislation applies to all areas of England and Wales and will remain in place until at least January 2022, with a stipulation that it will be extended for as long as necessary.

The Government’s announcement on the subject was clear that, when the pandemic is over, the usual rules on witnessing of wills will be reinstated. It remains possible, however, that this reactive measure to unprecedented circumstances could become a trial for video witnessing as a longer-term approach, because it offers so many advantages for both the client and the professional.

For the client, video witnessing not only enables a socially distanced process, but also avoids the need for travelling to an office and the time involved in getting the will witnessed in person. Regardless of COVID-19 restrictions, this has clear advantages for the elderly, those with limited mobility or serious health issues and the time-poor who have routinely pushed making a will to the back of their personal admin queue. In effect, therefore, video witnessing could become just as much a catalyst for encouraging will writing as the pandemic itself.

For the professional, meanwhile, video witnessing also offers time and efficiency benefits and enables a much wider geographical reach when it comes to serving clients because the entire will writing process can be carried out remotely.

Video call technology and virtual signatures have been much more widely used during the pandemic and it’s essential that the process is carried out as effectively and diligently as possible, with a clear video image. It is incumbent on the professional to outline to their client what’s required of them and how the process will be managed. This ensures they are properly prepared for the video witnessing interaction and reduces the possibility that the will could be challenged at any point in the future.

New Cultures on Death & Bereavement

Will writing during COVID-19 has been a sensitive topic for professionals in the sector, with a need to balance the opportunity to help people prepare for the future with the need for sensitivity in uncertain times. At Adroit Legal Services, we combine wills and probate services with a holistic approach to supporting clients with the practical and emotional impacts of bereavement through our not-for-profit arm, The National Bereavement Service (NBS), while offering trusted legal advice. As we look forward to a time when we can put the pandemic behind us, hopefully one of the positive changes will be an increased openness when talking about death and bereavement and an increased willingness to prepare for it.

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