Wills that are witnessed using video technology such as Zoom and FaceTime are to be made legal in England and Wales, making it easier for people to record their final wishes during the coronavirus pandemic.
The reforms legalising the remote witnessing of wills will be backdated to January 31 2020, the date of the first confirmed coronavirus case in the UK, the Government said.
It means that any will witnessed by video technology from that date onwards will be legally accepted.
The measures will remain in place until January 2022 – but can be shortened or extended if deemed necessary, according to the Government.
After this point, wills would return to being made with witnesses who are physically present.
Law firms have reported seeing surges in inquiries from people about wills during the lockdown, perhaps partly because some people have found themselves with more time to sort out their affairs.
Currently, the law states that a will must be made “in the presence of” at least two witnesses.
But necessary social distancing measures due to the coronavirus pandemic have made this problematic.
The Government said that, while isolating or shielding, some people have understandably turned to video-link software as a solution, for example using platforms such as Zoom or FaceTime.
Ministers said that wills witnessed in such a way will be deemed legal, as long as the quality of the sound and video is sufficient to see and hear what is happening at the time.
The changes will be made through new legislation in September, which amends the law to include video-witnessing.
The requirement of two witnesses will be maintained, helping to protect people against undue influence and fraud.
Wills need to be signed by two witnesses who are not its beneficiaries and electronic signatures will not be permitted.
In the longer term, the Government will also be considering wider reforms to the law on making wills.
Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland 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.”
The Law Society is glad to see that guidance has been issued to minimise fraud and abuse.Simon Davis, the Law Society
The Government said the use of video technology should remain a last resort, and people must continue to arrange physical witnessing of wills where it is safe to do so.
Wills witnessed through windows are already considered legitimate, provided there is clear sight of the person signing it.
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, a professional body comprising lawyers and accountants, 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.”
The boom in video conferencing during the coronavirus pandemic has also led to more people tidying up their finances in other ways remotely.
For example, HSBC UK recently expanded its use of video mortgage appointments, using Zoom technology.
It means that the bank’s customers can get a mortgage using video technology without the need to leave their existing home.