Where there’s a Will there’s a Way: New Zealand taking steps to legally manage COVID
The past few weeks have seen countries react in different ways to the usually simple act of making a will. What has become obvious is that those seeking to put in place a new will or looking to change existing wills may be unable to sign in the presence of a witness. This requirement is imposed by statute in many jurisdictions, including New Zealand, which requires two witnesses to be together in the presence of the maker of the will.
For those living alone or living with a spouse and family members who are likely to benefit under the will, third parties may need to be called in to act as witness thereby breaching the new norm of social distancing.
New Zealand has recently become one of the first countries to make a change to the way individuals are able to execute wills in the presence of witnesses, modifying the requirements imposed by the New Zealand Wills Act 2007. The changes will allow social distancing rules to be complied with, without putting the vulnerable at risk due to legal formalities.
As a result, from 17th April 2020, New Zealand wills can be signed and witnessed where others are present using audio-visual links. The impact of this is that a testator is able to sign in the presence of two witnesses who may witness the signature via an audio-visual link as long as it is made clear on the copy of the document that it is signed in this manner using certain language.
New Zealand has legislation – the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006 - which can be used by the government in times of crisis, and it was this that allowed New Zealand to react very quickly and relax its statutory requirements. Importantly, the changes implemented in relation to the execution of wills are only temporary, and will be revoked when notices issued pursuant to the primary legislation expire or are themselves revoked. These changes however should be viewed as good news to both clients and advisors alike, and the fact that two witnesses are unable to be physically present when the will maker is signing will no longer impede the making of wills under New Zealand law.