The families that have suddenly lost a loved one to this virus now have the unfortunate burden to also deal with inheritance tax, and the legal requirements that goes along with it. With some upfront planning regarding legacy planning, Wills, and Power of Attorney many of these problems could have been prevent during an already difficult time.
It can be a difficult subject, but the current coronavirus crisis has focused the minds of many people on the importance of will creation and legacy planning; and will writers are reporting a surge in business as individuals seek to get their affairs in order. Alongside increased requests to update or create wills, or establish lasting powers of attorney, there’s likely to be more pressure on estate administration providers in the coming months.
The corona virus pandemic has also unfortunately highlighted some of the inflexibilities of existing UK laws on wills and inheritances.
One of the biggest challenges is the requirement for many documents to have an original witnessed signature. This means that an individual must sign a document, in person, in front of a specified number of witnesses; usually one or two. The witness or witnesses are then required to sign the document as well, declaring they have seen it signed by the individual. This is proving difficult I n the current client due to us all needing to keep our distance to prevent the spread of the Corona Virus.
In England and Wales, for example, a will is only valid if it is signed in the presence of two witnesses who are older than 18.
Sign of the times
Given the need for social distancing during the coronavirus crisis, questions have arisen about how to safely satisfy the legal requirements.
While not normally ideal, it may be possible to have someone who you are isolating with at home to serve as a witness. HM Land Registry, for one, allows certain close family members to witness documents – provided they are not one of the parties named in the document. If you are in this situation, it’s best to consult a legal professional beforehand to ensure the person you have available is a suitable witness.
There is some discussion about whether witnessing through a window is acceptable. It’s currently not clear if this will be legally valid, so is best avoided. Additionally, even in today’s modern age, witnessing over a digital platform such as Skype or FaceTime is not typically permitted. That said, the Law Society of Scotland has advised that video conference calls can temporarily be used in many cases for taking a client’s instructions and witnessing.
Estate administration services, including ensuring people receive inheritances, have been less affected, as technology has enabled many to remain operational during the COVID-19 restrictions.
However, the safety of families must take priority, so professionals should be taking precautions to ensure they only send out the bare minimum of documents, namely those for which an original signature is the only legally valid option.
Many legal professionals are calling for the UK government to review and relax current laws, such as reducing the number of witnesses required on a will down to one, and to explore options that allow witnessing via digital video calling or recording technology.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “While there are no current plans to change the law, we will consider all options and keep this under review during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Looking ahead to a post-coronavirus world, it’s difficult to predict what the sector might look like. We can hope it will come out stronger, more efficient and more digitally savvy – with clients at its heart.
Will writing and Powers of Attorney involve the referral to a service that is separate and distinct to those offered by St. James's Place. Wills and Powers of Attorney are not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.
Published 1st June 2020