Are Virtual Wills a Good Idea?
As we know, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario has passed emergency legislation allowing for Wills and powers of attorney to be executed and witnessed virtually, and in counterparts. This legislation will remain in effect for the duration of the declared emergency. Although Premier Doug Ford recently announced a plan for reopening Ontario, the timeline for doing so is still vague, and it’s unclear when the emergency will be declared to be at an end. Once the emergency is over, the normal rules for execution of Wills and powers of attorney, as set out in the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26, and the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, S.O. 1992, c. 30, will once again govern how such documents may be validly executed.
Before coronavirus became such a pressing concern, there was some discussion in the United States, of allowing Wills executed electronically to be considered valid testamentary documents. According to this article in The New York Times, entitled “A Will Without Ink and Paper”, at the time the article was published in October 2019, some states already had laws to allow e-signatures on Wills, and others were looking to adopt similar laws this year.
In the US, the Uniform Law Commission has proposed the Uniform Electronic Wills Act, which is intended to serve as a model for states who wish to enact such legislation. The law would allow testators to complete the entire Will-making and execution process online, without a lawyer or notary present. There are already online services, currently serving states that already have laws allowing electronic Wills, which provide a platform for the creation of these digital Wills.
According to The New York Times article, the process of creating an electronic Will involves a testator creating a Will online, and then having a video-conference call with a notary. The notary will review the document, ask questions of the testator, notarize it, and send it back.
Although the concept of electronic Wills seems convenient, the costs may ultimately outweigh the benefits. As one lawyer quoted in the article states, signing a Will “is not like getting toilet paper delivered by Amazon instead of going to a supermarket…This is a solemn thing that people don’t do every day.” The “inconvenience” of consulting a lawyer, having a Will professionally drafted, and executed in the traditional way, will likely be worth the trouble for most testators, particularly when you consider that this is not a task that needs to be done repeatedly, at frequent intervals (like going to the grocery store to buy toilet paper).
The article mentions a number of points as to why electronic Wills may not be such a great idea. Without a lawyer’s involvement, there is a heightened risk for undue influence to go undetected. Testators with significant assets that may be structured in complicated ways, or who have unique family situations, such as a blended family, are not likely to be well-served by the creation (let alone the execution) of a Will online, without estate planning advice from a lawyer.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and it is helpful to have alternate methods of executing Wills and powers of attorney in these unprecedented times. But when life goes back to normal, I think we can be comfortable with the return to the “old-fashioned” way of executing Wills and powers of attorney. Although some may consider the process to be cumbersome, the added protection for testators, and the comfort of an estate plan that takes into account each testator’s unique situation, is worth the price.
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