“Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate.” (Ambrose Bierce)
It may well be that in the future, we will be able to make a perfectly valid will (“Last Will and Testament”) by way of a video recording or other electronic means, but that day has not yet arrived.
For now, it is essential that your will be properly drawn, not only to clearly reflect your last wishes, but also to comply with all the formalities laid out in our Wills Act.
In summary (ask your lawyer to explain the finer points, they are important), wills must be in writing and signed by you on all pages, in the presence at the same time of two competent witnesses who must sign the end page (preferably all pages, but that’s not a formal requirement). Note that neither witnesses nor their spouses can inherit or be appointed as executor, trustee or guardian.
Video wills – are they valid?
Bearing in mind those required formalities, and the fact that an attempt to rely on a video recording as a will was abandoned in the case discussed below, it would be rash to assume that a “video will” ever be accepted as valid even though the concept has not to date been directly tested in our courts.
Rather observe all the formalities listed above, and think of using a video recording just as an adjunct to your formal will. For example, recording the will-signing process itself could help avoid any future dispute over your written will’s validity, whilst an informal video message to your family explaining to them why you have drawn your will the way you have could provide clarity and comfort to them when the time comes.
Non-compliance with formalities – there are “escape hatches”, but …
There are “escape hatches” in that our Wills Act provides that a document not complying with all formalities can be accepted as a valid will if it was drafted or executed by the deceased and if it was intended to be their will. You can also be authorised to both inherit and act as an executor, even if you or your spouse signed as a witness, if you can prove that there was no fraud or undue influence over the deceased. You can also be taken to have revoked a previous will in various ways.
But as we shall see from the two recent High Court cases discussed below, relying on any of those escape hatches is extremely unwise. At worst, your last wishes won’t be honoured, and at best you will be exposing your loved ones to the risk of prolonged and bitter litigation at the very worst time.
Case 1: A Covid-19 video-call attempt to replace a will fails
- A father had left everything to his children in a 2018 will. But, dying in hospital of Covid-19 in 2021, he made a video call to his farm manager indicating his wish to revoke the will and saying that his final instructions were that everything be left to his farming trust.
- As requested, the farm manager had a will to that effect drawn by attorneys and delivered it to the hospital (he was unable to deliver it personally due to Covid-19 restrictions then in place), but the father died before it could be given to him for confirmation and signature.
- The trust asked the High Court for an order declaring the 2018 will revoked and the 2021 unsigned will accepted as valid (it seems to have abandoned an argument that the video call itself was a will). The disinherited children opposed this application vigorously.
- The Court declined to validate the unsigned 2021 document, pointing out that the Wills Act’s provisions in this regard must be interpreted and applied strictly and narrowly. It’s analysis of the trust’s argument that the “impossibility principle” applied will be of great interest to lawyers, but the practical point of issue to most of us is that although it seems clear that the father wanted to make a whole new will, on the facts of this case only his written and signed 2018 will could be accepted as valid.
Case 2: Brothers at war, and a non-compliant will accepted as valid
- Another tragic case of a dying father trying to change his will, this time to disinherit one son (“JP”) in favour of the other (“SG”).
- The new will did not comply with the Wills Act’s formalities. Three witnesses signed it but not in each other’s presence, whilst the fact that one of the witnesses was SG’s wife formally disqualified him from inheriting or acting as executor.
- JP asked the Court to declare the will invalid so he could inherit under the laws of intestacy, whilst SG asked the Court to accept the will despite the non-compliance, and to allow him to inherit and to act as executor.
- On the particular facts of this case, including undisputed evidence of a major rift between JP and his father (in contrast to an extremely close relationship between SG and the father), the Court exercised its discretion in favour of SG.
- Firstly, it held that the will, despite the failure to comply with formalities, was indeed drawn by the father and intended by him to be his will. It was therefore accepted as valid.
- Secondly, it held that SG could both inherit and act as executor because he had proved a lack of fraud or undue influence over his father.
Different outcomes but a clear principle – failure to comply with all formalities risks your last wishes not being implemented and exposes your loved ones to dispute and litigation.
Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.