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“Lockdown wills” lead to surge in contested probate

Emma Lunn
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Emma Lunn

The number of wills being challenged by families has more than doubled during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a law firm.

JMW Solicitors has seen a 260% increase in contested probate cases and warns that “lockdown wills” and a squeeze in finances will create vicious battles for meagre sums.

Solicitors experienced a surge in demand for will writing services as lockdown measures took effect.

Wills weren’t just written by the elderly, but also young and middle aged people classed as clinically vulnerable, and those worried about adding to their families’ burden should they fall victim to the virus.

Alison Parry, partner at JMW Solicitors, says: “Coronavirus will create a perfect storm when it comes to contested probate – and the battles are likely to be more vicious given thousands are facing financial ruin as a result of Covid-19 and millions more anticipate redundancy. People will be much more likely to challenge a will – and for much smaller claims – and will be far less willing to negotiate.”

JMW Solicitors expects to see an increase in families asking how a relatives’ will was executed, who was in attendance and how capacity was established.

Isolation rules meant that during lockdown advisors often watched being wills signed through windows or via video call.

However, the way a will was signed is likely to fuel future probate battles with family members raising questions around undue influence and capacity given that the process was undertaken at a distance.

“Face-to-face meetings with the elderly and vulnerable has proven difficult, particularly those in care homes or hospices – lawyers have been permitted access via side doors wearing full PPE, but visits were kept very brief, which raises questions around capacity,” says Parry, “Have they spent enough time with the client to establish that the individual has capacity to make these particular decisions?”

There could also be issues around undue influence. Witnessing the signing of a will through a window is perfectly legal, but the advisor must be certain that there is no-one out of view exerting influence. The same is true of witnessing Zoom or Facetime signing of wills, with scores of wills having been produced and signed from a hospital bed during the past 12 weeks.

“Can they really be sure? How was that established without access to the property? Families are also likely to question whether instructions could be heard properly via a distanced procedure, particularly for the elderly or hearing impaired,” adds Parry.