Outbreak creates havoc with witnessing a will
Many adults who decided to make a will due to the coronavirus are finding the pandemic is making the process risky or impossible.
The outbreak has reminded many that making a will is a sensible precaution to ensure their estate is distributed as they would like it if the worst happened. But many are now finding the process is much harder than it was before the outbreak.
However, there are some solutions, and Government is coming under pressure to do more to fix the problem.
What are the issues?
One problem is that a will legally has to be signed by hand by two witnesses in the presence of the owner, or ‘testator’.
The coronavirus outbreak means there is an obvious possible health risk to this process.
A second problem is testators can struggle to find witnesses at all, as the Government has told the nation to stay indoors except for essential reasons.
Will owners often cannot even rely on the people they share a home with to be witnesses. These cohabitants are likely to be family members or friends and therefore beneficiaries in the will, ruling them out.
Ashley Shepherd, of retirement advisers Over50Choices, says: “It’s a problem. In terms of writing a will, you can do it at home online but you need two witnesses. A lot of people who are isolating together will be the testator and their beneficiaries, who cannot legally be witnesses.”
Another issue is that, while simple wills can be mostly completed online, more complicated ones require a solicitor. Many of these law firms have temporarily closed due to coronavirus, adding to the waiting time to get a will sorted.
What is the solution?
Shepherd says one possible answer is for the testator to arrange to meet witnesses, perhaps neighbours, outdoors, without coming closer than two metres to one another.
With all parties wearing gloves, the testator can put the will down and back away. The witnesses can then pick up and sign the document and give it back in the same way.
But even this has risks, as the coronavirus can survive on solid surfaces such as paper for days, and there is an accidental risk of coming too close to a witness and getting ill.
“It is possible to do, but people need to ask how much effort and risk they want to take,” Shepherd says.
What is Government doing to help?
Fortunately the Ministry of Justice is looking into letting witnesses sign wills online or over video messaging, following lobbying from The Law Society and Society of Will Writers.
Anthony Belcher, of the Society of Will Writers, says: “Ultimately we believe that the current events are likely to completely change the industry, even if any changes implemented are only temporary until the virus impacts us less. This could well be one of the biggest advancements in will writing to date.”
Simon Davis, of the Law Society, says: "Solicitors have seen a significant increase in wills enquiries during the Covid-19 outbreak.
"The Law Society is speaking with the Ministry of Justice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority about how best to execute wills whilst practising social distancing and isolation."
The MoJ would not say more about any changes to the will system or timescales for that change.
An MoJ spokesperson says: “This is a delicate area of law and we absolutely must continue protect the elderly and vulnerable against potential fraud. 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.”