By Steven Tallant, Chief Executive of Videosign
A recent personal experience has brought home to me just how far out of date our laws around wills and probate have become.
Wills occupy a strange place in UK law. Incredibly, despite all the technology available to us, we still rely on law dating back to 1837 requiring wills to be signed with pen and ink.
During the Covid pandemic, the Government temporarily relaxed the law in England and Wales, allowing the pen and ink signature to be virtually witnessed via videolink instead of in person – but that amendment is due expire at the end of January 2024, returning us to a method of making wills that was introduced the year Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.
It’s legal to sign most contracts and documents online these days, but wills remain one of the few areas where only a traditional signature is accepted.
The flaws in this system were brought into focus for me recently after my aunt died suddenly in December of last year, and I was named as executor of her will.
Dealing with a complex process like probate is made all the more difficult when people involved are affected by grief, and it seems to me that some simple changes to the law could help to minimise the distress felt by bereaved families.
In principle, my aunt’s will couldn’t have been any simpler. There was a modest amount of money and a house. The complete estate was worth £180,000 and with her husband passed and no children, the beneficiaries were my aunt’s three siblings, with the estate being split three ways equally.
Although my aunt’s will was uncomplicated, it still took seven months for probate to be granted after a frustrating and unnecessarily difficult process. This is considered ‘normal’, and within the standard six- to twelve-month processing time for a simple probate .
It should and could have been straightforward, but there were problems – and it’s especially frustrating for me as someone who spends every day working on software designed for signing and reviewing important documents safely and conveniently.
First, there was a slight tear in the physical paper will document, and the Probate Registry required a statement from a witness to confirm that the document was complete.
When that issue was resolved, another query was raised because the pages of the will weren’t stapled together.
These two issues were raised separately and weeks apart. Although I had submitted the probate application online as it was supposedly the faster method (as it should be) the responses from the witness had to be sent in the post.
Documents went missing in the post – we never found out where or how – and the whole process dragged on for longer than it needed to.
Both issues could have been resolved in minutes by referring to the video evidence and digital documents, if technology like Videosign had been used to sign the will in the first place, rather than depending on physical paperwork that can be easily damaged or lost.
There are very good reasons why the security and probity of wills is taken seriously. But there are equally valid reasons to improve processes in the UK to take advantage of the benefits technology has to offer.
That’s why I have written to Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice Lord Bellamy KC to make the case for updating the legal framework for making wills.
Other countries are now ahead of the UK in terms of modernising this area of law. For example, many US states are introducing laws allowing wills to be both witnessed and signed digitally.
I hope that Lord Bellamy will agree with me that there is an opportunity here to modernise this archaic process.
We have built Videosign into a one-stop shop for creating, distributing, securely signing, remotely witnessing and storing documents because we’re passionate about using technology to make people’s lives easier and make important processes like this more secure.
I’m sure many people will have much more difficult experiences than mine while dealing with probate, and I would love to see the UK legislate to bring wills into the digital age at last.