Demand for wills has surged in the past two weeks because of coronavirus fears – but client safety is being ‘undermined’ by the need to sign and witness wills in person.
According to a study by financial consultancy deVere Group, demand for wills jumped by 76% in the past fortnight, as the pandemic exerts a ‘collective focusing-of-minds effect’. Nigel Green, chief executrive, attributed the rise to ‘frightening’ death tolls and the fact people have more time on their hands.
Meanwhile, it has been reported that Farewill, an online will writer, has seen enquiries almost triple since the outbreak. The firm is now receiving around 2,000 requests per week, up from just 700 before the Covid-19 crisis.
Solicitors have called for urgent changes around the signing and witnessing of wills in the face of growing demand. Gareth Horner, managing partner of Salisbury firm Parker Bullen, said: ‘Demand for wills is surging locally, but the government must change rules to allow for electronic signatures or the lawyers to sign on a person’s behalf and witnessing via video conferencing.
‘We are already using video conferencing that enables several parties to participate at the same time. This technology ensures that people, especially the vulnerable, do not need to leave their homes. However, this is being undermined by the fact that a Will needs to be signed and witnessed by two individuals in person.’
Talks between the Ministry of Justice and the Law Society about a major overhaul of probate legislation are still ongoing. Among the options are an Australian-style approach which would give judges more flexibility when deciding what constitutes a will; a European-style system where testators could write wills by hand without witnesses; and a process where wills could be witnessed electronically.
Current laws around the signing of wills have been in place since 1837, and it is unclear whether new legislation would be revoked once the coronavirus crisis is over.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.