A statutory instrument legalising video-witnessed wills has been laid before parliament and will come into force at the end of the month.
In an order laid in the House of Commons yesterday, the lord chancellor temporarily amended the Wills Act of 1837 to allow the witnessing of wills to take place via ‘videoconferencing or other visual transmission’, such as Skype and Zoom.
The reforms will come into force on 28 September and will be backdated to 31 January 2020, the date of the first confirmed coronavirus case in the UK. This means that any will witnessed by video technology from that date onwards will be legally accepted, providing the quality of the sound and video was sufficient to see and hear what was happening at the time.
The SI will remain in place until 31 January 2022. However, the Ministry of Justice said the measures can be shortened or extended if deemed necessary.
According to government guidance, video-witnessed wills should remain a last resort and people must continue to arrange physical witnessing of wills where it is safe to do so.
An MoJ spokesperson said: ‘We know the pandemic has made it more difficult to make a will. That’s why we are changing the law to ensure video-witnessed wills are legally recognised. These changes will give peace of mind to many that their last wishes can still be recorded while maintaining all the existing safeguards against fraud or disputes.’
The Wills Act 1837 previously required two witnesses to be in the physical presence of the testator, in order to protect people against undue influence and fraud. Some solicitors have warned that the reforms could lead to a spike in contentious probate cases and claims against probate solicitors.
Law Society president Simon Davis cautiously welcomed the government’s decision.
He said: ‘Both probate solicitors and the public will need greater clarity on when remote witnessing is appropriate and what to do in exceptional circumstances – such as if the testator dies while the will is being sent to a witness’ address for them to sign.
‘In the long term, wider reform of the Wills Act is needed to bring it into the 21st century. We will continue to explore the viability of giving judges dispensing powers to recognise the deceased’s intentions where strict formalities for making a valid will have not been followed but whatever reforms are introduced, the public should continue to seek professional advice when making a will.’