Could lockdown Wills lead to a tsunami of disputes?
Back in April – which seems like a lifetime ago in these difficult and unusual times – our associate Iain Cameron wrote about the issues surrounding the making of Wills in a time of pandemic.
Iain wrote about the potential dangers of solicitors receiving instructions regarding Wills, and of Wills being signed, via video link.
It would seem his words were somewhat prophetic as lawyers around the UK are now warning that Wills written or witnessed during lockdown could lead to a tsunami of contentious probate claims.
Central to these potential claims is confusion surrounding the use of video conferencing to witness documents.
Across all parts of the business world, meetings via video solutions such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams have become the ‘new normal’ during lockdown – and the legal sector is no different.
However, as Iain wrote in April, the Wills Act 1837 requires Wills to be signed in the presence of two or more witnesses. Indeed, the Law Society published guidance shortly after the start of lockdown saying Wills should not be witnessed via video link as the Act required the physical presence of witnesses.
Nevertheless, there seems little doubt that video links and webcams have been used both to draw up and witness Wills during this unprecedented period.
There are now concerns that a flood of probate disputes in the wake of the pandemic will be the result, particularly in cases where people have passed away during lockdown after their Will had been written, or even amended, and witnessed via webcam.
The UK Government is looking at how Will-making can be better facilitated while the pandemic continues. A decision is expected this month.
Meanwhile, wider reforms to Wills are being considered by the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry is also due to request that the Law Commission reviews the law around deeds.
Decisions in both areas will be welcome. Clarity is needed around the use of video links for the making and witnessing of Wills, particularly as home-working looks set to become the norm for many businesses and individuals post-Covid. Many people – particularly the elderly or those with underlying health conditions – will not be able to or feel comfortable with having physical meetings.
More than 70 per cent of adults in the UK still do not have a Will. The many tragedies caused by this pandemic highlight the importance of having a Will in place to avoid confusion, further upset and unnecessary taxation at a time of grief for your loved ones.
Making the process easier should be one of the central planks of any Westminster reforms.
In the meantime, our team of experts are accredited by the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) and – thanks to our flexible working arrangements and investment in technology – have been able to continue to deliver the best advice to our clients throughout the Covid crisis.
In uncertain times, you can be certain of Bellavia & Associates.
Zep Bellavia is Managing Director of Newport-based solicitors Bellavia & Associates.