COVID-19: Government has no immediate plans to relax will witnessing formalities to safeguard elderly and vulnerable from undue influence and fraud.
We wrote earlier this month as reminder of the importance of having a valid Will in place, to ensure that should the worst happen, your estate is dealt with in line with your wishes.
In England and Wales the formal requirements for making a Will are that it must be in writing, signed and witnessed by two independent witnesses. Due to the country currently being on lockdown with social distancing rules in place, there have been concerns that it is now too late to draft a new Will as the requirements for valid execution are harder to follow and there have been discussions as to whether the Government are going to relax these rules temporarily throughout the pandemic.
In an answer to a written question on the Parliament website on 21 April 2020, Alex Chalk, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Ministry of Justice, indicated that the government has no immediate plans to reform the requirements for executing and witnessing a will in the light of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Mr Chalk dismissed the idea of extending the rules that apply to those making wills when on active military service where the normal formalities cannot be observe. In the longer term, the government would consider reforms to the law on wills arising from the Law Commission report on wills when it was published. It would also use work carried out by the Law Commission in relation to the electronic execution of documents to inform potential reforms to the law of wills in the future, but not now.
Although this may come as a disappointment to some, it is important to bear in mind that these formalities try to provide safeguards to protect elderly and vulnerable people, in particular, against undue influence and fraud and this appeared to be a main consideration by the government. If the formalities surrounding the execution of wills are relaxed, individuals may take advantage of this by, for instance, influencing another to change their will to benefit them, with there being little to no evidence to prove that they were coerced. However, ultimately even the current formalities cannot provide complete protection from this.
If you have concerns that someone may be abusing the current formalities in place and/or that a will may not have been validly executed, members of our contentious probate team would be able to discuss and advise on the matter over the phone or by video link.
If you want to discuss preparing a new will or updating the provisions of your current will, our tax and estate planning team would be able to discuss these provisions over the phone or via video call, draft the Will to reflect your wishes and advise on how to validly execute the Will in these unusual times.