STEP launches Thought Leadership webinar series with a look at remote witnessing of wills, and asks whether it’s here to stay

Robert CaringtonLast week, STEP held the first of its Thought Leadership webinar series which examined the issue of remote witnessing of wills, and whether it would continue after COVID-19-related social distancing measures are lifted.

Emily Deane TEP, Technical Counsel at STEP, was joined on the panel by Peter Glowacki, Partner at BLG; and Anatol Dutta, Professor of private law at LMU Munich, with the event moderated by Shelley Rhoads Perry TEP, CEO Senior Advocacy Group.

The panel reviewed what measures their respective governments had taken.

In the UK the government laid a statutory instrument (SI) before parliament on 7 Sep, to come into force on 28 Sep, and while lasting until 31 Jan 2022, would be backdated to 31 Jan 2020. This SI allows someone to make a safe and valid will through remote witnessing, if no other options are available.

Inevitably this approach has led to a number of concerns: how do you assess the testator’s capacity and see if undue influence is being wielded? What if the will is lost in the post? Supposing the testator dies before the process is complete? While there has been no test case yet, STEP is urging extreme caution to members using this method, and recommends only using it as a last resort.

However the panel recognised that the current Wills Act is antiquated and that wider reform is on the horizon. It also discussed whether financial institutions would allow a will, if the need for a notary as a witness was dropped. The European Union is exploring a certificate of succession, which expands on the documents used in civil law jurisdictions which allow a bank to release funds to the beneficiary.

In Canada, different regions have implemented remote witnessing at different speeds and levels. Ontario was one of the first, releasing an order to allow the electronic execution of wills with witnesses. British Colombia has gone the furthest by allowing the video execution of wills, and has adopted legislation to make this permanent. It allows for electronic signatures and electronic wills and eliminates the need for notaries/lawyers as witnesses. It has noted such practical issues as the use of different platforms and users’ varying degrees of technological experience.

Most civil law jurisdictions allow public wills, instead of a witnessed will recognised by a notary, and some countries allow this to be done remotely. Germany, for instance, has not made many changes, as holographic wills which can be made without witnesses are already recognised.

The panel discussed the need for a notary/ lawyer to be a witness, and believe that this is likely to be retained in most jurisdictions.

The panel concluded that legislation can, and is, adapting to accept technological advances. While change is inevitable, the main challenge faced by governments will be to balance technical opportunities with robust safeguards.

Robert Carington is Policy Executive at STEP.

UK trust taxation under review

Simon HodgesOn 7 November, the UK government launched its review into the taxation of trusts, almost a year after announcing it in the 2017 Autumn Budget.

The consultation, which will run until 30 January 2019, focuses on the principles of transparency, fairness and neutrality, and simplicity. The government’s stated aim is to ensure that the many people who use trusts will benefit from a ‘clear and transparent regime that is easy to understand’.

STEP welcomes the review, which provides an opportunity to address some of the complexities that exist around the current system of trust taxation and to suggest changes to the taxation of trusts that would be positive for both practitioners and their clients. It will also enable us to address any misconceptions around the uses of trusts.

Media around the consultation has, in many cases, focused on the issue of improving transparency in relation to trusts to prevent them being used for tax avoidance purposes. However, transparency is only one of the aims of this review, and the government acknowledges in the consultation document that there is already a large amount of ongoing activity in relation to trust transparency, and suggests that any new activity must take into account that the vast number of trusts are used legitimately.

STEP has already formed a working group to help respond to this important review, which includes senior members drawn from both the UK Technical and UK Practice committees. We have been in contact with HMRC since the review was announced, and will continue to engage as we develop our response further. We will keep members updated of further news in this area over the coming months.

Simon Hodges is Director of Policy at STEP