Law firms around England are being inundated with clients clamouring to write wills as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic gathers pace.
One firm in the Black Country has even had to turn people away, according to Ian Bond, chair of wills and equity at the Law Society.
A similar picture has emerged from the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG), which registers lasting powers of attorney (LPAs) in England and Wales. It warned that processing times for applications could exceed the usual 40 days as it struggles with high demand as well as the impact of coronavirus on staff.
Here we look at who needs a will, how to go about writing or updating one when self-isolating and the pitfalls to avoid. We also take a look at what’s happening with LPAs.
Keep up with all the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?.
Who needs a will?
In short, everybody needs a will. A will is the only way to ensure the people you choose, receive what you want to give from your estate.
Co-habiting couples often wrongly believe that their so-called common law marriage will mean their estate will pass on to their partner but because they are not legally married or civil partners, their partner has no automatic right of inheritance.
Dying intestate – without a will – means the next-of-kin inherit, not your partner. The partner left behind can find themselves homeless and without funding.
Research by insurer Royal London recently found that two in five homeowners do not have a will, meaning their estate may not go to the people closest to them and there’s no provision for their dependents.
Marriage invalidates previous wills for people in England and Wales so estates will pass on according to the rules of intestacy. These rules differ in Scotland.
- Find out more: What happens when someone dies without a will
What you should include in your will
You should include anything and everything that is important to you. For some, this means who’s looking after their pets; for others it’s a charitable donation. Usually a will records how assets are divided to fit family situations.
Wills are flexible and can cover any situation be it blended families, business, or excluding someone from your will.
Trusts can give further flexibility to allow decisions to be made to fit circumstances after your death.
- Find out more: How to write a will
Pitfalls to avoid when will writing
Think through what you want to happen. Does the will writing service cover all the options you need? A purely online service may not cater for your particular circumstances.
Choose your will writer carefully. You don’t have to use a solicitor but bear in mind that the will writing market is unregulated so anyone can set up as a will writer.
You may already have used a solicitor elsewhere such as for business or property but when it comes to wills, it’s a good idea to use someone specialising in inheritance.
Look for relevant qualifications. It’s wise to select someone with accreditation from the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) or Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE). Only solicitors can join SFE whereas financial advisers, accountants, solicitors and legal executives can be part of STEP.
If you go for an unregulated will writer, ensure they are either part of the Institute of Professional Will writers (IPW) or the Society of Will Writers (SWW).
Cost is not the only consideration. If you have complex circumstances or many responsibilities for those left behind, a thorough, tailored approach could serve you better than than something cheap and quick over the internet.
Where tax planning, a subsequent marriage, foreign assets, business property, multiple properties or agricultural assets are involved, you should use a solicitor.
You can’t change an existing will: Don’t think you can just amend a will. You can, however, replace it.
Is your will out of date?
Wills can easily go out of date often without you realising. Consider updating them after:
- life events such as births, deaths, marriages and divorces
- Budgets – these could include changes to tax rules around deaths and trusts
- time has passed and circumstances have changed. Practically, this can mean every three to five years.
Practical tips to making wills while self-isolating
Much can be discussed over the phone but many people may prefer face-to-face interaction on what can be a sensitive or tricky conversation.
Many law firms and will writers are turning to video conferencing such as Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, GoogleChat and other platforms (more on keeping in contact here).
Getting a signature witnessed while everyone is social distancing and more than two people cannot be together will take careful planning but it is not insurmountable.
To be valid, the signing of a will has to be witnessed by two people who aren’t related to you or the executor, and can’t be a beneficiary of the will.
People have signed on one side of a window and passed the will to witnesses on the other side, says lawyer James Buchan at Which? Wills.
In another case, neighbours stood at one end of a drive to watch the signing, the document was then brought forward to a safe distance, placed down and once the will maker had withdrawn, the witnesses collected the paperwork, signed it and left it to be picked up. Just make sure you wash your hands before and after.
How quickly can you set up a will?
Drafting a will for someone with complex affairs takes time.
With will writers seeing workloads doubled in the last few weeks, the fastest way to complete the will making process is, perhaps counter-intuitively, not to chase it over the phone.
Once a will is executed, it is valid immediately.
Who needs a lasting power of attorney?
As with wills, they should be put in place and kept safe until they are needed.
LPAs cover how your affairs are managed while you are alive and wills cover how your estate is dealt with and divided afterwards.
- Find out more: what are powers of attorney?
Practical tips to making LPAs while self-isolating
As with wills, signing and witnessing will need to be planned but it is perfectly possible to complete the process properly without infringing the rules on social distancing.
The ‘donor’ or person bestowing powers of attorney has to sign first and this has to be witnessed. At this stage, the person receiving the powers does not have to be present nor does their witness.
As soon as possible afterwards, the ‘attorney’ or person receiving the powers must sign and be witnessed signing. The papers can be posted between the donor and the attorney and the attorney’s witness can be a family member.
How quickly can you set up LPAs?
Right now with high demand at the Office of Public Guardian, where LPAs have to be registered, expect waits of over 12 weeks.
- Find out more: setting up a power of attorney