Coronavirus And UK Lockdown Could Result In Changes To Centuries-Old Law
Centuries-old law could be changed so that wills are easier to sign, following an increase in the amount of wills being made amidst the UK lockdown.
The Ministry of Justice may consider ways in which the laws around wills being drawn up could be relaxed temporarily, in order to prioritise safety concerns and maintain social distancing measures.
In England and Wales, at the moment wills must have two independent witnesses present at the time they’re signed, and witnesses can’t be anyone mentioned in the will nor their spouses. A temporary relaxation could mean wills are witnessed via video conference, or with less witnesses needed.
Since the UK lockdown started social distancing measures have made will signings extremely difficult, with examples of wills being signed through windows emerging. There is precedent for wills to be signed without witnesses at all – the 1837 Act allows those in active military service to make ‘privileged wills’, which can either be written or oral, and don’t require witnesses.
The Ministry has voiced that any change in the rules must take into account the risks of fraud. A spokesperson said: “This is a delicate area of law and we absolutely must continue protect the elderly and vulnerable against potential fraud.”
Experts at law firm Irwin Mitchell are urging for the risk of fraudulent wills to be front and centre of any plans, or risk will disputes being created further down the line.
Expert Opinion“These are extraordinary times we’re in and we have had more people getting in touch with wanting to sort out their affairs because of coronavirus – either because they’re anxious, or because they have more time under lockdown.
“We have no idea how this pandemic is going to continue, and it’s unsurprising the Ministry of Justice might relax the rules around witnessing of wills; we completely agree the safety of all involved is paramount. However, we hope that safeguarding measures are considered as a top priority if any changes are going to be made.
“Our team have expressed concerns of what could happen if the rules are relaxed particularly relating to the elderly and vulnerable – for instance, someone could be out of sight and influencing the client’s decisions.
“By the time a will is put into effect, issues over knowledge and understanding of the will are often verified by the witnesses. Without this function, it would increase the opportunity for fraud. Additional identity and capacity safeguards would need to be fully considered.
“If there’s any doubt a will wasn’t signed properly, we might see more costly will disputes coming out of this period of uncertainty, which can be emotionally devastating for families.
“Many are anxious for either themselves or their loved ones to be looked after, so until we hear of any changes to the rules we’ll continue to help our clients as much as we can.” Gillian Coverley - National Head of Partnerships, Wills & Probate