One of the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures is how to witness the signing of legal documents, including wills.
Now, the government is legalising the remote witnessing of wills, in a bid to make it easier for people to record their final wishes.
The planned legal change will make it possible to virtually witness the signing of a will in England and Wales.
These reforms will be backdated to 31st January 2020, so wills virtually witnessed in this fashion since the onset of the pandemic are legally valid. And the change to the law will stay in place for as long as it's needed.
Under the law, as it currently stands, a will must be witnessed in the presence of at least two witnesses.
But social distancing, shielding and self-isolation measures have made the physical witnessing of a will challenging since the onset of the lockdown.
One solution for witnessing a will without being physically present is the use of a video platform such as Zoom or FaceTime.
The government has reassured people that a will witnessed in this way is deemed legal, as long as the sound and video quality is sufficient to hear and see what is taking place at the time.
The new rules will be made legislation in September.
Two witnesses are still required, which serves as an important safeguard against undue influence and fraud.
Justice Secretary & Lord Chancellor, Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP, said:
"We are pleased that more people are taking the incredibly important step to plan for the future by making a will.
"We know that the pandemic has made this process more difficult, which is why we are changing law to ensure that wills witnessed via video technology are legally recognised.
"Our measures will give peace of mind to many that their last wishes can still be recorded during this challenging time, while continuing to protect the elderly and vulnerable.”
Despite this change in the law, using video technology to witness the signing of a will should, according to the government, remain the last resort. Where it is safe to witness the signing of a will physically, this should still happen.
One safe way to witness a will without breaching social distancing guidelines is to watch through a window, as long as the line of sight is clear.
Simon Davis, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said:
"The government’s decision to allow wills to be witnessed remotely for the next two years will help alleviate the difficulties that some members of the public have encountered when making wills during the pandemic.
"The Law Society is glad to see that guidance has been issued to minimise fraud and abuse. We look forward to working with government to ensure the reform is robust and successful."
Emily Deane, Technical Counsel at STEP, said:
"We are delighted that the Government has responded to the industry’s calls to allow will witnessing over video conference. By removing the need for any physical witnesses, wills can continue to be drawn up efficiently, effectively and safely by those isolating.
"STEP also welcomes the move to apply this retrospectively, which will provide reassurance to anyone who has had no choice but to execute a will in this manner prior to this legislation being enacted. We hope the policy will continue to evolve and enable more people to execute a will at this difficult time."