Heathfield solicitors busy with enquiries during pandemic
While many businesses in the Heathfield area have been busy moving to delivery or on-line business models, the town’s solicitors have been quietly working to keep people’s legal paperwork flowing.
With solicitors who carry out will writing being designated as key workers, Hughes Solicitors has been finding ways to make sure the team can continue to help clients with their legal affairs.
Not surprisingly, during the pandemic mortality is on people’s minds and more time at home for many offers the opportunity for some to sort out the paperwork that was always on the ‘to do’ list.
Over the last few weeks Hughes Solicitors has seen a surge in enquiries from clients wanting to make a will or update an existing will.
One of the most frequent questions has been ‘how do we get it witnessed while observing social distancing rules?’
Hilary Hughes, head of the private client team and a founding partner, explains: “For a will to be valid certain criteria need to be fulfilled. Firstly, it needs to be in writing – either handwritten or typed. Then it must be signed by the person making the will (known as the testator) in the presence of two independent witnesses – the witnesses cannot be beneficiaries and they must both be present at the same time and each witness must sign the will in the presence of the testator.
“There are good reasons for these precautions as they protect a vulnerable person from being coerced into signing a will under duress and they provide a safeguard in the event that the validity of a will is challenged after someone has died.”
The rules on social isolation are making it more difficult for the Hughes team to get two appropriate witnesses together with a testator. However, with the British spirit of ‘keep calm and carry on’ prevailing it is not surprising that there have been reports of some novel solutions being put forward such as, depending on the proximity of neighbours, some people have been able to have their wills witnessed while signing in their porch or in their garden.
Another alternative suggestion has been signing in a public space during daily exercise, such as a park or a church porch where people stand at an appropriate distance and approach a single bench or seat to sign the will one at a time.
Hilary adds a note of caution: “While it is encouraging to see more people wanting to make wills and put their affairs in order, there is still a high degree of risk around the signing of wills and the potential for individuals to get the formalities wrong. Ideally the signing process should still be overseen by a solicitor, or other legal professional, and we would encourage people to speak to us about their specific circumstances.”
Sadly, Hughes Solicitors has to deal with the administration of many estates where people have died without a will.
“It can be very messy when people die without making a will – known as intestate – and they can save their families a lot of heartache by making a will. Even if you aren’t ready to talk to a solicitor yet, it’s a good idea to look at what you own – known as your estate – and think about who would be your executor and who would be your beneficiaries.”
Meanwhile, the Law Society has been in contact with the Ministry of Justice to explore whether the signing and witnessing of wills and power of attorneys could be made easier, with suggestions including using electronic signatures or signatures witnessed on video. However the law has not yet been changed.