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Relaxation of will-making rules during COVID may open elderly to abuse

The writing of wills has drastically changed during the pandemic, with lockdown and other restrictions rendering the traditional rule of all parties signing off in person difficult, if not impossible.

Australian courts have enacted temporary changes so wills can be finalised remotely using the likes of video conferencing. However, researchers are concerned that remote methods increase the risk of elder abuse and the coercion of those writing a will.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded many people to create a valid will, or update their current final wishes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded many people to create a valid will, or update their current final wishes.Credit:Getty.

Research co-author Associate Professor Tina Cockburn said already one remotely created will had to go before a Queensland court for validation because a page had not been signed.

“The reason for the age-old requirement in will-making that everyone has to be together in the same room to sign the documents was to stop the risk of undue influence and pressure,” she said.

“Also, sometimes witnesses are called upon in court to give evidence about someone’s capacity [to finalise their will], but if that witness has not been in the room with someone for a lengthy period, there could be challenges with them talking about someone’s capacity.”

Co-author Dr Kelly Purser said remote will-making meant that even if the will-maker said they were alone on a video call, someone could be off-camera or in another room listening or coercing them.

Associate Professor Cockburn said neither she nor Dr Purser were against technology being embraced, but they believed more research was needed.

“If wills could be validly witnessed online, that would be cost-saving … and enable will-making for isolated people, because beneficiaries, like family, cannot also act as witnesses [in Queensland].”

Law Institute of Victoria council member Kathy Wilson, who specialises in wills and estates, said even though remote will-making measures were introduced in Victoria – similar to other states’ measures – they were not always practical, and she advised some clients to do things differently.

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