Few of us imagined we would ever live though a pandemic, and yet COVID-19 has arrived, and is here to stay, for now at least. Even when lockdown eases, we will all be facing social distancing for some time to come.
The pandemic has brought our own mortality sharply into focus. A lot of people have sadly lost family members, and many of us are looking ahead to ensure our own families are protected, should the worst happen.
Over half of UK adults have not written a will. If this is you, the rules of intestacy will apply. This means that while your blood relatives may inherit, it may not be what you would have chosen yourself.
It is especially important to write a will if you live with someone but are not married or in a civil partnership, as he or she has no automatic rights of inheritance. If you have children, they will be protected, but not your partner, unless you own property jointly.
Who should witness a will – and how?
While in normal circumstances it is easy enough to get a will drawn up and signed, in these days of lockdown and social distancing, it’s a bit more complicated.
It is a legal requirement to have two witnesses when you sign your will. These must be independent, meaning they cannot be people who will benefit themselves. This leaves you with the challenge of getting a physical document signed by people who are outside your household, while still complying with government rules.
It’s not impossible, however. A number of firms have come up with imaginative solutions involving witnessing the will over a fence, or across a driveway, and then using gloves and separate pens to sign at a safe distance. This may be trickier, however, if you are isolating or in hospital.
Make sure it’s valid
While many of us are using facilities such as Zoom or WhatsApp as a substitute for work or social meetings, it is important to recognise that a will witnessed by videoconferencing will not be legally valid in England and Wales and Northern Ireland.
If your will is disputed after your death, your family could be in for some stressful and expensive court proceedings. You need to avoid this at all costs.
There are moves to encourage the Ministry of Justice to change its rules, but you should not take a chance on this happening.
‘We are hoping the Ministry of Justice will introduce temporary legislative measures such as reducing the number of witnesses and considering video witnessing,’ says Emily Deane TEP, Technical Counsel at STEP. ‘However, until the government makes a decision on this, if people sign wills without witnesses, or using video conferencing or any other variations, then they risk the will being invalid or ineffective.’
It should be noted that Scotland has adopted different rules, and is temporarily allowing wills to be witnessed by solicitors via videoconference.
If you do need to resort to irregular means to execute your will, you may wish to consider returning to it after the current crisis has passed to have it executed in a more traditional manner, so that there is no doubt about its validity.
Our recommendation is to discuss your circumstances with a reliable practitioner. It is easy to find one local to you, and he or she will be able to recommend a way forward.