Virtual Witnessing of Wills and Powers of Attorney With Less Risk
Although the temporary emergency Order has only been in place for a few days, there is no question that lawyers have already begun to virtually witness the execution of wills and powers of attorney. A complimentary CPD program on the issue was put on by the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) last week, chaired by Ian Hull. A link to it is here. LawPRO has also provided a helpful commentary on the subject matter from the perspective of risk-avoidance here, and below I draw upon the points made that may help lawyers lessen their risk of a malpractice claim.
As much as lawyers may be focused on adhering to the requirements under the emergency Order, LawPRO reminds us that the most common cause of malpractice claims in the estates area is inadequate investigation – a failure to inquire about assets, prior wills and details about past and present marital and familial relationships. The second most common error is a communication failure – not ensuring consistency between the draft will and the instruction notes, and not ensuring that the solicitor and client each understand the other. So it is important to keep risk management tips here top of mind, particularly given that it may be more difficult to effectively communicate or ensure that clients understand documentation when conducting virtual client meetings.
As related specifically to virtual witnessing of wills and powers of attorney, LawPRO has various suggested steps to lessen the risk of a claim, which I comment on below.
- Comfort – Some clients may not be as ease with video technology and/or discussing personal matters through this medium. Take the time to establish that all participants are comfortable.
- Identification – As a result of Covid-19, the LSO is not requiring face-to-face meetings to identify or verify a client’s identity. Here you can find the LSO’s guidance on the issue, and LawPRO’s video conference checklist (accessible through the LawPRO link above) will help lawyers consider the steps needed before, during and after a video conference meeting.
- Capacity and undue influence – These known risks may be more difficult to assess through virtual communication, making it all the more important that certain precautions be taken, such as: (i) asking open questions, and follow up questions, (ii) asking questions to establish that the client is acting independently (e.g. explore relationships and reasoning in detail when marked changes are being made), (iii) when acting for one client, make sure the client is alone in the room (consider asking for a video pan of the room if you can’t clearly see it), and (iv) take notes reflecting consideration of capacity and undue influence, especially if there are any concerns. Here you can find a checklist WEL Partners has created for indicators of undue influence during video meetings, and the LSO has released a special comment on the issue here.
- No counterparts – You will need multiple virtual meetings so each witness can sign the original will or power of attorney. Video conference wills will also likely require a different affidavit of execution, and here you can find our recent blog that provides sample affidavits of execution.
- Document your work – Particular scrutiny may be given to documents executed during this health crisis. Taking detailed notes or recording the meeting (with client consent) will document what occurred, and reporting to the client thereafter will serve to confirm your instructions.
- After the emergency – Although not required, once it is safe to do so consider recommending that your clients re-execute their testamentary documents in the physical presence of witnesses.
To help mitigate the risk of a claim, Hull eState Planner has created checklists for executing wills and powers of attorney by video. The will execution by video checklist can be found here and the powers of attorney execution by video checklist can be found here.
The Covid-19 situation is creating rapid change, and at Hull & Hull LLP we are monitoring things on a daily basis. I encourage you to continue to access our website for further updates. Our resource page can be found here.
Thanks for reading and have a great day,