Under the law, two witnesses who are not beneficiaries are required to witness the signature of a will to demonstrate that there is no undue influence. After the temporary relaxation of the rules during lockdown proved to be a success, the reforms will allow families to use Zoom, Facetime or Skype as a last resort. The move will make it easier for those who may be ill, in care, shielding or self-isolating to go through a process that has remained largely unchanged since the Wills Act of 1837.
One in seven lawyers said they had used remote technology to enable witnesses to attend the reading of a will without it being any less secure. The change enabling virtual witnesses will be extended to 2024, and it could become permanent under a review by the Law Commission due to report next year.
Until the video link was allowed, lawyers had been using their “ingenuity” to help people witness wills – including watching through a window or signing them on car bonnets. Wills witnessed through windows are considered legitimate in case law provided they have clear sight of the person signing it. The precedent dates back to 1781 in Casson v Dade, when a maid in a horse-drawn carriage witnessed a will through a window when the animal reared up, offering her a line of sight of the moment of signature. However, a contrast was presented in 1902 when a judge in Brown v Skirrow ruled that it was not enough for a witness who was distracted at the moment the will was signed in a busy shop to later agree she had witnessed it.
The Law Society’s president, Stephanie Boyce, said lawyers had “bent over backwards” to ensure wills were completed. However, she added that a long-term solution would be to give judges the right to recognise a deceased’s intention.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: “This is a common-sense measure that will give vulnerable people peace of mind that their wills are recognised if they are forced to have them witnessed via video.”