Wills: How Necessity Has Sparked Legal Innovation

One consequence of the coronavirus outbreak is that both wills and the wider process of will making have focused minds more than they have for at least 75 years.

Whereas in normal times making a will was often something that people would put off (and off), the combination of a pandemic and the spare time granted by lockdown have given many the impetus they needed to make sure their affairs are “in order”.

This has brought with it a surge of innovation from solicitors looking to help their clients; from observing the signing of documents through car windows, to keeping strict social distancing protocols in firm’s reception areas while pen is put to paper.

One Bristol firm (ELM Legal Services) has also hit the headlines with its “webcam wills service”. This constitutes a 90-minute recorded webcam consultation to talk through the facts and figures of an estate and draw up a plan. The will is then converted into a password-protected PDF file that can be issued as a hard copy once lockdown measures are eased.

The Law Society of Scotland meanwhile, as a temporary measure, has allowed lawyers to act as witnesses via video-conference  (as long as they have not been appointed as an executor).

Understandably, the current situation and the innovative reactions to it have also sparked debate about whether the time has come to update the 183-year-old legislation (the Wills Act 1837) that requires two witnesses to be physically next to the person signing their will.

As a short-term measure the government has reportedly considered introducing emergency laws that might include giving judges more flexibility in ruling what constitutes a will; allowing testators to write wills by hand without witnesses; or giving the green light for wills to be witnessed electronically.

While such measures might seem appealing, any relaxation in the law surrounding the signing of wills should be approached with caution. This was underlined by the Law Commission in its 2017 Wills Consultation which looked at various ways in which the formalities surrounding wills might be reduced or eliminated, but whose work led ultimately to no relaxation of the formal requirements of the Wills Act.

Whatever happens in terms of innovation or legislation over the coming months, one thing seems certain. Shortly prior to the coronavirus outbreak, more than half of Britons did not have a valid will in place (according to research by insurance firm Royal London). That figure must now surely have reduced.

This article was submitted to be published by Fraser and Fraser as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Wills and Probate. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Wills and Probate.

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