Wills witnessed remotely over video conferencing apps such as Zoom and Skype will now become legal in England and Wales, making it easier for people to record their final wishes during the pandemic.
Until now, a will had to be made in the presence of at least two witnesses but social distancing measures due to Covid-19 have made it difficult for self-isolating individuals to have their wills witnessed in person.
The change to legislation to include video wills will take place in September and will be backdated to January 31 2020.
Robert Buckland, justice secretary, said: “We know that the pandemic has made this process more difficult, which is why we are changing law to ensure that wills witnessed via video technology are legally recognised.
“Our measures will give peace of mind to many that their last wishes can still be recorded during this challenging time, while continuing to protect the elderly and vulnerable.”
Lawyers welcomed the change but some were concerned the measure was being rushed through without proper consideration of the impact it may have on vulnerable individuals.
Alistair Spencer, associate at Lime Solicitors, said video witnessing of wills could ultimately result in additional litigation. “It is simply impossible to know for certain, if you are witnessing a will over video conferencing, whether anyone is in the room with the testator when they are signing the will,” he said.
Individuals could easily avoid being seen by a video camera if they were intending to compel a testator to make a will which favoured them, he said. “The current witnessing requirements, while not ideal, do make it more difficult for an individual to be unduly influenced to make a will.”
Michael Rutili, senior associate in the private client and tax team at Withers, also expressed concern. “Technology has often helped mitigate the effects on everyday life of an otherwise devastating pandemic but does still have its limitations. It will always be harder to dispel any concerns of undue influence over video than in person,” he said.
The government said the use of video technology should remain a last resort and wills would still need to be signed by two witnesses who are not beneficiaries. Electronic signatures will not be permitted.
The announcement on wills came as the government this week said transfer of ownership of property, leases, mortgages and other property dealings can now be signed electronically, making it simpler and faster for people to move home.
HM Land Registry will accept “witnessed electronic signatures”: those that enable an individual to sign legal documents, but which still require a witness who is present at the time also to sign the documents electronically.