A Change Will Come!
In the midst of the current Coronavirus pandemic, and the uncertainty of the future, more and more people have decided to make a Will. Many law firms, including Ridley & Hall, have remained open throughout the crisis and have continued to offer Will-writing services, albeit in a strange and unfamiliar way. The laws governing how Wills must be made and executed date back to 1837, when the legal landscape looked very different, although they were certainly not strangers to killer viruses, plagues and diseases in those days.
We have had to adapt our practices to take clients instructions, to ensure that people are kept safe but also to ensure that the legalities of making valid Wills are adhered to. Face-to-face meetings to take instructions now seem a rareity, with telephone interviews and video calls becoming more commonplace. Clients coming into the office have to be carefully managed and visits to people’s homes and care settings must be risk assessed. Yet we still have a duty to ensure that people have still got the necessary capacity to make a new Will, and that they are not being forced or coerced into making certain provisions. We must ensure that our duty of client confidentiality is not breached, nor that our clients feel anxious or uncomfortable using new technologies to undertake such an important task.
Not only is the way we take our instructions quite different to how it was done before, but the way in which the Wills are executed has had to change as well. To ensure the valid execution of a Will, we always recommended that clients attend the offices for a signing appointment, so that we could go through the contents of the Will with them, ensure that they were accurate and met the clients objectives, and to verify the client’s knowledge and approval of the Will’s contents. These meetings also served to make sure that the Will was signed properly and witnessed by independent witnesses. The Wills Act 1837 stipulated that a Will must be signed in the presence of at least two independent witnesses, who are not beneficiaries under the Will, nor are they married to beneficiaries under the Will. Alongside this, in times where people must self-isolate, shield, stay at least 2 metres apart for social distancing, and where people from different households are not allowed indoors together, this has created unfamiliar challenges for solicitors to get Wills signed in accordance with the strict rules set down nearly 200 years ago. We have been thankful for the sunny weather we enjoyed in April and May, as many Wills were executed at clients’ homes with two members of our staff paying them a visit with a final copy of the Will and signing them on the doorstep! Car bonnets, over fences and across hallways have all also provided obscure locations for Wills to be signed over the past few months.
In a press release published by the Ministry of Justice at the end of July, there was a loud sigh of relief from practitioners across England and Wales, as the government have announced that the rules set out in the 1837 Wills Act are going to be extended so that the “presence” of the two witnesses to the signing of the Will may be physical OR virtual, so that signing over video-link will be now a legal way of executing a Will until January 2022 (although this deadline can be amended as required) and they will also backdate this validation to any execution of Wills done virtually from 31 January 2020 (the date of the first confirmed Coronavirus case in the UK). The way in which Wills are executed will also be reviewed by the government going forward, which has also been welcomed with open arms across the industry, as reform is long overdue. In the meantime, completing Wills in the traditional way of the testator and their witnesses all being together in person is still very much the preferred method, and Ridley & Hall will endeavour to assist our clients in executing their Wills in this way. In these strange times however, it is encouraging to know that we do now have alternative options available to help you get your personal affairs in order, and we await the Government’s confirmation that this law has been passed in the weeks to come.