Making a will online in the age of Covid

The pandemic has propelled the procedure of making a will into the digital age – but beware.

It has taken a pandemic, “but making a will has finally moved into the 21st century”, says Lindsay Cook in the Financial Times. Since 1837, “making a will … has required the physical presence of at least two witnesses”. But now the Ministry of Justice says witnessing a will can be done over a video call in England and Wales. The will-maker needs to hold the front page of the will up to the camera to show the two witnesses. Then the video must capture the will-maker signing the document. It must record them “actually writing their signature, not just their head and shoulders”, says Jane Dalton in The Independent.

Then the will has to be sent to both the witnesses – who must not be beneficiaries – and they each need to sign it, with the other witness and will-maker “present” via video link each time. All this should be completed within 24 hours. The upshot is that the new rule won’t necessarily make getting a will set up any easier, but it will mean people who are shielding can still get their affairs in order. Another option is to have your will witnessed through a window or at a safe distance in the garden. Both methods are legal.

Sorting out your will via video link should be a “last resort” Oliver Asha, head of legal at Make a Will Online tells the Financial Times, as “there are so many points where you can go wrong”. “People may sign the will outside the line of sight of the camera if they use a front-mounted laptop with the camera pointing at their face. Also, internet connectivity can invalidate the will if the screen freezes during the call.”

If you are going to have your will witnessed with video calls, make sure it is written accordingly. On a standard will it says “signed in the presence of two witnesses”. This needs to be changed to: “I, (your name), wish to make a will of my own free will and sign it here before these witnesses, who are witnessing me doing this remotely.”

Once you’ve done your will, consider writing a letter of wishes, in which you can explain decisions you have made in your will in order to avoid disputes. For example, if you have left someone out of your will you can explain in the letter of wishes that it wasn’t simply an oversight. When writing your will and letter of wishes remember that your will is a public document. Anyone can buy a copy from the Probate Registry. But a letter of wishes is private so it can be far more personal with explanations and goodbyes. Another document you should keep with your will is a list of all your assets so your executors and beneficiaries can find everything. This should include pensions, bank accounts, investments, credit cards and assets, ideally with recent valuations. And don’t forget digital assets such as passwords, shopping accounts and online storage.

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