A headline of a 2019 Forbes article delivered a blunt message to those of us who practice estate law: “Electronic wills are coming whether lawyers like it or not.”
The article notes that the U.S. Uniform Law Commission “recognizes the trend in online everything” and recently approved the Electronic Wills Act, which provides a framework for a valid electronic will. Under the provisions of the Act, individual states can determine the number of witnesses required for the creation of a will and whether their virtual presence is sufficient. The will has to be in text form, meaning that video and audio wills are not allowed but, once the will is signed, witnessed and notarized (if required), it will be legal.
In Canada in 2020, the Uniform Law Conference of Canada (ULCC) approved in principle amendments to its Uniform Wills Act to allow for the drafting of electronic wills. A progress report from the ULCC notes that the Electronic Transactions Act has determined that the electronic medium was “sufficiently established, reliable and usable to be accepted for all business purposes.”
The Act specifically exempts three areas: wills, powers of attorney and conveyances. The exemption for wills should be lifted, the ULCC committee recommends, noting that “we now have almost 15 years of experience of electronic commerce … much of our daily lives and arrangements are performed electronically – most of our banking, all of our healthcare records, most of our insurance and even our professional certification is all carried out electronically. In that context, what argument could be advanced that wills are so different and so exclusive that they could not be accommodated under our approach to electronic commerce.”
The committee claims that “other than ‘tradition’ it is difficult to identify any cogent argument to support the continued exception. An electronic record, once stored, is reliable, can be retrieved for future use and its ‘custody and control’ is probably more clearly tracked in electronic form than in hard copy.”
Most provinces are being cautious about embracing electronic wills, or e-wills. British Columbia has taken the lead with the establishment of Bill 21: Wills Estates and Succession Amendment Act, 2020. Bill 21 was built upon a ministerial order that permitted the electronic witnessing of wills while British Columbia was in a state of emergency due to the COVID pandemic. It expands the definition of a will to allow one done in “electronic form” to satisfy the requirement that a will must be in writing. The bill received royal assent in August, 2020.
In Ontario, Attorney General Doug Downey has been content to partially open up estate law to the electronic medium. With the passage of Bill 245, Accelerating Access to Justice Act, 2021, the virtual witnessing of wills and power of attorney documents is now allowed in Ontario on a permanent basis. Previously, it was introduced on a temporary basis during the pandemic.
Virtual witnessing means the testator and witnesses can be connected through a video call, rather than being physically together in a lawyer’s office. There are two important caveats to keep in mind – the first being that at least one of these witnesses must be a licensed lawyer or paralegal. They are there not just to be a witness, but also to confirm that the testator has the requisite capacity to sign the Last Will and Testament and that they fully appreciate the nature and contents of it.
The second caveat is that while the act of signing can be done virtually, electronic signatures are not allowed. Instead, everyone involved must print out the documents and sign them in wet ink. Once they are put together and stored safely, the will is complete and legal.
While the Forbes article quoted in the introduction may be correct about e-wills being inevitable – some U.S. states, Britain and Australia have either passed laws allowing digital wills or are considering them – there are still many reasons for people to maintain the traditional approach for the time being.
The human contact between the testator and legal counsel offered in a face-to-face meeting cannot be fully replicated in a virtual meeting. This contact builds trust and reassurance, which is vital when drafting this important document. There is also a unique set of concerns surrounding the preparation of estate planning documents that sets them apart from other legal documents that are signed digitally.
At Hull & Hull LLP, we will be monitoring the evolution of e-wills and working to accommodate any legislation the province introduces, but we are glad to see Ontario taking a cautious approach in this area.
Take care, and have a great day.
A recent decision out of Alberta on holograph wills is interesting. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench decision released on February 20, 2020 in Edmonton in the Estate of Dalla Lana, 2020 ABQB 135 starts with the following :
“Mr. Dalla Lana made a will in 1997. On March 1, 2018 (four days before he died) and via notes made on two sticky notes, he made what he described as “changes to my earlier will”. The “changes” if valid, effectively rewrote the entire will.”
The decision then goes on to find that the “two sticky notes” were a valid will. This was one more decision in a long line of cases (in substantial compliance jurisdictions, unlike Ontario) with wills being upheld when written on everything from napkins to tractor fenders.
If a valid will can be done on a sticky note, one should ask is there any reason now why an electronic will could not be done on an iPad or smartphone?
Pandemic emergency Orders in Ontario have recently accepted wills being signed and witnessed by video conference or by counterpart. However, there is still a requirement for a “hard copy” of the will. A purely electronic will with a digital signature is still not permissible.
Some jurisdictions have already allowed electronic wills into probate. In Australia, the High Court of Queensland gave probate to a will in 2013 contained in the iPad of the deceased, in Yu Estate 2013 QSC 322.
Although digital electronic signatures have been allowed in Ontario for use in some business situations for many years, there are some restrictions on doing electronic will signatures which are found in the Electronic Commerce Act, 2000, SO 2000, c 17,
31 (1) This Act does not apply to the following documents:
- Wills and codicils.
- Trusts created by wills or codicils.
- Powers of attorney, to the extent that they are in respect of an individual’s financial affairs or personal care.
Given the emergency statutory provisions triggered by the pandemic, it seems inevitable that a meaningful debate will soon ensue about the merits of electronic wills and the broader question of whether Ontario should adopt substantial compliance in its estates legislation.
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In Ontario, a Will has to be in writing and typically an original is required for probate to be granted. With the increase of the technological presence in the everyday life of a typical Canadian, the question remains, should electronic Wills be admitted to probate?
Clare E. Burns and Leandra Appugliesi wrote an interesting paper on this topic titled “There’s an App for that: E-Wills in Ontario” that argued for the development of a legislative scheme in Ontario that admits the possibility of electronic Wills.
In discussing this question, the experience of other jurisdictions was considered, including the United States and Australia.
In 2005, the State of Tennessee was the first American state to recognize the validity of a Will executed with an e-signature. In that particular case, the deceased prepared his Will on his computer and asked two of his neighbours to serve as witnesses. A computer-generated signature was affixed to the Will. Almost ten years later, in 2013, the State of Ohio admitted to probate a Will that was written in the deceased’s own handwriting and signed by him, on a tablet computer.
It appears that electronic Wills are most probably valid in Florida, Texas and California and consistent with existing legislation, though the legislation does not specifically contemplate electronic Wills. The State of Nevada, on the other hand, has specifically enacted legislation which expressly allows for the validity of electronic Wills.
Australia, in comparison to the United States, has managed the question of electronic Wills by making use of the “substantial compliance” legislation that exists in each state, which gives the state courts the authority to dispense with the formal requirements for the execution of the Will. In comparison, the legislation in Ontario is one of “strict compliance” such that the formalities of a Will are required before a Certificate of Appointment is granted.
It appears that in Ontario, though a Court could theoretically admit an electronic Will (i.e. not an original copy) to probate, the formalities in accordance with the Succession Law Reform Act must be met, in any event. As a result, an electronic Will that does not meet any one of the formalities will almost certainly not be admitted to probate.
As various electronic gadgets are now being used more and more, Canadians are also using them to make testamentary documents. In keeping with the realities of contemporary life, it may be that legislative reform is needed.
In discussing the possibility of legislative reform, Ms. Burns and Ms. Appugliesi, also addressed the importance of various policy considerations. In doing so, they addressed the John J. Langbein analysis, which set out four main purposes to the formalities requirements in any Wills legislation:
- Evidentiary: the writing, signature and attestation requirements serve as evidence of testamentary intent in a reliable and permanent form;
- Channeling: the writing, signature and attestation requirements ease the administrative burden on the court system by setting out a uniform checklist of what is required before probate can be granted;
- Cautionary: the formalities are designed to impress the seriousness of the testamentary act upon the testator so as to ensure that he or she has fully thought through the result of executing the Will; and
- Protective: the formalities are designed to reduce the opportunity for fraud and undue influence by involving witnesses in the process.
As litigators, the “evidentiary” and the “protective” purposes are particularly important, as we often consider questions of testamentary intent, undue influence and fraud (albeit more rarely), amongst other things.
From that perspective, any legislative amendments to be made must address the various policy considerations and the implications of any such amendments on the legal system in Ontario.
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I recently came across this interesting article regarding legislation introduced in Florida authorizing electronic Wills and electronic Will execution.
Titled the Florida Electronic Wills Act, currently awaiting final approval from the Governor of Florida, permits exactly what its title suggests – a testator can create and sign a Will on a tablet, computer, or in another electronic form, and witnessing of the Will may be done using remote audio and video technology.
So, the Act still requires that the Will be written, signed, and witnessed. But, it allows all of this to happen in cyberspace.
Certain safeguards are built into the Act. For instance, virtual will signing meetings must be recorded and stored to be available for evidence in case there is a later dispute. As well, at the video session, the testator must present ID and answer certain questions, including whether the testator “is of sound mind” and “is signing the document voluntarily”.
Hoping to jump into this new market, a company called willing.com, has launched a website to assist testators with making their Wills online. Not everyone is pleased though with the proposed Act in its current form, as evidenced by the submissions of the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section of the Florida Bar.
Nothing of this sort exists in Ontario….just yet. Interestingly though, the Law Reform Commission of Saskatchewan prepared a Report on Electronic Wills in 2004.
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