Swindon law firm Royds Withy King has offered guidance about having wills witnessed during the coronavirus emergency.
The demand for wills and powers of attorney are, understandably, high yet the requirement for two independent witnesses is proving challenging when the country is in lockdown.
The Law Society and the Ministry of Justice are discussing ways to make the signing of wills and powers of attorney easier and quicker.
In the meantime, lawyers at the firm – which also has an office in Marlborough – are thinking creatively to ensure they can still deliver the service for clients.
Ed Vidnes, a Partner in the Private Client team at Royds Withy King, said, “We have noticed a sharp increase in instructions for wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs) since the coronavirus crisis.
“It’s clear that the risks are playing on everyone’s mind and that people want to take steps to put their affairs in order. We’ve heard from a broad spectrum of people across all age ranges, proving that it’s not just the elderly who are concerned.
“The reasons for making a will are obvious, but often the benefits of LPAs are overlooked. LPAs allow you to choose attorneys to make certain important decisions on your behalf. Using an LPA, it’s possible to ensure that these decisions are taken by someone you are close to and trust. There are two types of LPA: one for financial decisions and one for health and welfare.
“Instead of our usual face-to-face meetings, we are offering initial interviews via Skype, Zoom or WhatsApp. Taking instructions in this way means that our clients can remain within the safety of their own home throughout the process. To ensure that these remote meetings are as effective as possible, we are providing clients with email questionnaires beforehand. These questionnaires allow us to gauge the complexity of the instructions, any potential capacity issues and determine which of our specialist lawyers should conduct the interview.
“We know that for some people, a video call isn’t always possible. In those circumstances, we are taking some will instructions by phone, but are careful to ensure that we check ID to prevent fraud. Due to these increased risks, this kind of meeting is only really appropriate in the simplest of cases.
“Once drafted, the wills and LPAs will be sent via email or, if necessary, by post for our clients to review. At least two witnesses are needed to ensure that the necessary formalities are complied with. In normal circumstances, we’d oversee the signing off process ourselves but in the present situation this is not possible.
“The solution, although not ideal, is a simple one. Asking neighbours to step outside their front doors for a few moments means that the process can be completed in a way that takes into account the need for social distancing and we’re providing our clients with simple written instructions to help. Witnessing could be completed over a garden fence or from across the road. As long as you are within the line of sight of each other, then you could even complete this in a field if one is available!
“We’ve had a few clients who are very infectious and ill. In these extreme circumstances one of our solicitors has signed the will on behalf of the client, who watches and confirms the process via video link from his bed. We then provide the witnesses remotely.
“At the moment there is no guarantee that these are validly executed wills, but it is hoped that in these unprecedented times the Probate Registry would consider the wills to be valid. The current advice is that this is better than nothing and that hopefully the client will recover and be able to re-execute the will conventionally in due course.”
Amanda Noyce, Head of Inheritance Disputes at Royds Withy King, cautions against DIY wills which do not provide the safe level of reassurance of a professionally drawn version.
She said, “We have seen a definite increase in will disputes over the past 15 years or so, as people become increasingly aware that wills are often open to challenge.
“It is very understandable that during the coronavirus crisis we will see people making wills in a rush and without legal advice. However, please be aware that this will only serve to increase the likelihood of those wills being challenged in due course. Do seek legal advice: it really will save problems further down the line.
“Lockdown really is bringing out the creativity in us all and proving that everything is possible with a bit of imagination and ingenuity.”
Pictured above: Ed Vidnes, Partner, Royds Withy King