The Law Commission of England and Wales is holding a public consultation on reform of the law of wills. The current law, largely derived from the Wills Act 1837, is understandably antiquated and requires an overhaul. The Commission notes that 40 per cent of people in England and Wales die without leaving a valid will, which often results in application of the unfavourable laws of intestacy.
Significant changes in society, technology and medicine have prompted the Commission to review the wills law. Some of these factors include:
• the ageing population;
• the greater incidence of dementia;
• the evolution of the medical understanding of disorders, diseases and conditions that could affect a person’s capacity to make a will;
• the emergence of, and increasing reliance on, digital technology;
• changing patterns of family life – for example, more cohabiting couples and more people having second families; and
• with more people having substantial amounts of property, clarity about what happens to it after death being more important than ever.
The Commission’s objective is to modernise and improve the current, archaic wills law. Some of the key focus areas include:
• More flexibility: This would enable courts, when it is clear what the deceased wanted or intended, to dispense with the formalities of a will. If a particular formality, such as having two witnesses sign the will, had been overlooked or incorrectly administered, new ‘dispensing powers’ would enable the court to validate the will.
• Capacity review: It may be necessary to improve the test for capacity to reflect the modern understanding of medical conditions such as dementia. This review could result in the introduction of a new test specifically linked to these conditions, where the testator makes a will with specific new guidance and support.
• Statutory guidance: It may be necessary to introduce statutory guidance for doctors and other professionals when assessing whether or not a person has the required mental capacity to make a will. This could reduce the need for lengthy, costly litigation.
• Undue influence: New rules should be considered to protect testators from being unduly influenced by another person. In particular, elderly and vulnerable testators should be better protected from fraud.
• Testamentary capacity: Lowering the age at which a will can be made from 18 years old to 16. A child of 16 or 17 might have significant assets that he or she may not want to pass to an estranged parent under the rules of intestacy.
• Electronic wills: It may be necessary to review how technology can be adapted in relation to making a will; it may become easier, cheaper and more convenient to a testator if they are able to do so electronically, though some practical challenges will need to be considered.
• Ademption: The Commission would like to encourage discussions as to whether or not the ademption rules need to be reviewed. The rules could be improved to better align the testator’s wishes and intentions with the operation of the law.
STEP is working closely with the Law Commission and the Association of Contentious Trust and Probate Specialists (ACTAPS) on this consultation project. STEP is hosting free consultation events in London, Newcastle and Manchester, and STEP members are invited to provide feedback to Commission representatives.
Consultation event schedule:
The consultation closes on 10 November 2017, and the Commission’s conclusions, along with its final recommendations and a draft Bill, are expected to be published in early 2018.