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 social distancing rules.
It’s not impossible, however. A number of firms have come up with 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
Many of us are using video conferencing facilities as a substitute for work or social meetings, and in July 2020, the UK Ministry of Justice announced that video witnessing of will execution is allowable in England and Wales if people are unable to observe the normal formalities, and cannot have two independent witnesses present. This should only be used in an emergency, however, if conventional witnessing is impossible (more information).
The legislation enabling this came into force in September 2020 and will be in force for two years until 31 January 2022.
Scotland is also 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.