As deaths in England and Wales reach a 20-year high, solicitors are seeing a surge in the number of people wishing to make a will - at exactly the time it’s harder than ever to do so.

Latest Office for National Statistics figures show that, in the week ending April 10, there were more than 18,500 deaths - an increase of almost 8,000 compared to the weekly average for this time of year and the highest number since the first week of 2000. Of these, a third involved Coronavirus, rising to more than half of all deaths in London. Deaths from other causes also increased, suggesting that people with existing health issues are staying away from hospitals and GP surgeries when they should be seeking medical treatment.

With total COVID-19 related deaths in the UK now surpassing 17,000*, sadly, the thoughts of an increasing number of us are turning to wills and end of life planning. Yet social distancing measures are making it hard for many isolated households to put the right steps in place. 

Talking to your family about death is an emotive and, often, very difficult subject, but, in the face of COVID-19, it seems it's a conversation more of us are willing to have. Many solicitors’ firms nationally have reported a spike in will-writing enquiries, while the National Will Register is seeing a surge in online searches for wills, with families unable to enter loved ones’ properties to find the relevant paperwork since the pandemic took hold. 

How to make a will

For almost 200 years, the physical presence of two witnesses has been required to make a will legally valid, with the Wills Act 1837 stating that the will maker (the testator) and witnesses must be present together. Beneficiaries of the will are unable to act as witnesses.

In Scotland, the witnessing of wills by video conference has been allowed as a result of Coronavirus but, in England and Wales, the law has not been similarly relaxed. According to Solicitors for the Elderly member Cliff Veitch, people are becoming ‘creative’ as a result.

He said: “For example, wills can be witnessed by neighbours through a window or from the garden gate, as long as all three people are present together and can see each other sign. The witnesses then add their signatures, names and address in case they need to be contacted later to prove the signing of the will. Everyone would need to use their own pen and perhaps wear gloves.”

Do I need a solicitor to draw up a will?

It is not necessary for a will to be drawn up or witnessed by a solicitor, although it’s advisable to consider a ‘DIY will’ only if matters are straightforward. If your circumstances are complex, or you and your partner have children from previous relationships, it can be a good idea to seek legal advice in order to avoid misunderstandings and disputes after your death, which may result in heavy legal costs being deducted from the value of your estate.

While you may not be able to see a solicitor face to face during the lockdown period, many legal firms are working remotely and offering virtual meetings to discuss wills and end of life planning. 

Mr Veitch added: “The COVID-19 crisis has caused a surge of interest in making and updating wills. Many solicitors’ firms are keeping their virtual offices open and their staff are able to work from home, and many are able to take instructions from clients via telephone, Facetime and Zoom instead of face to face meetings. Drafts can still be sent via email or via post. 

“We suggest that before your first ‘meeting’ with your solicitor that you prepare as much as possible, think about what questions you want to ask, put together a list of your assets and finances, think about those that you wish to include in your will and those you wish to oversee it. Many firms do send out a questionnaire to complete and return in advance. Once approved and agreed, final copies can be sent to you for signature.”

The Law Society has been working on behalf of testators to try to make it easier to write a will during Coronavirus, including liaising with the Ministry of Justice on issues relating to executing wills, witness requirements and the use of video conferencing facilities. 

With priorities shifting during lockdown and families finding themselves spending more time together - and those ‘difficult’ conversations perhaps occurring more naturally - the weeks spent isolating at home can prove a good time to get your affairs in order. 

Many of our customers have been reviewing their life cover, while our guides on issues including writing life insurance in trust and life insurance myths busted can help you sort the fact from the fiction. They also explain jargon such as probate and inheritance tax, as well as the difference between life insurance and life assurance.

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* Figure correct as of April 21 2020.