British Columbia

Proposed changes to wills in B.C. draw support — and concern — about electronic documents

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a rush of British Columbians to plan their estates, and some experts hope that recently proposed legislative changes to allow people to do so electronically will continue that trend.

Remote signatures, online witnesses could become permanent

Online will-writing service Willful and the B.C. Society of Notaries Public say they've seen an uptick in demand for end-of-life legal documents during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Eugenio Marongiu / Shutterstock)

When Vancouverite Jerrid Grimm's mother passed away in March 2017, he wasn't prepared for the mountain of tasks that would come within hours of her death.

Luckily, his mother had planned for all of those details, leaving Grimm and his sisters to grieve her loss without that added stress.

"She had done an amazing job of having a will prepared," Grimm said. "I just realized what a gift that was."

The process made Grimm, 40, realize the importance of leaving behind a will for his wife and two young children. But the prospect of lawyers and paperwork meant it would be another two years before he would do so.

It wasn't until Grimm found a way to create a will online that he finally got around to preparing one last fall. He used Willful, an online service. In 20 minutes, he was done. And it only cost him about $100. 

Jerrid Grimm, far right, says he was inspired to leave a will for his wife and two kids after his mother passed away in 2017. (Submitted by Jerrid Grimm)

Estimates vary, but surveys suggest only about 55 per cent of British Columbians have a will. Each year, the province encourages people to prepare one

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a rush of British Columbians to plan their estates and assign power of attorney, and some experts hope recently proposed legislative changes to allow people to do so electronically will extend that trend.

Last month, the province proposed permanent changes to the Wills, Estates and Succession Act that would allow people to witness wills remotely through the use of technology like Zoom or FaceTime instead of in person. These measures have been available since March, when temporary changes were put in place because COVID-19.

The proposed legislative changes would also allow British Columbians to create and sign their will electronically. 

'Technology is here to make things easier'

Erin Bury, co-founder of Toronto-based Wilful, says allowing people to create and file important documents digitally is a big step toward streamlining the task of making a will.

Bury says demand for Willful has increased by up to 600 per cent since the pandemic began. 

"I really believe that technology is here to make things easier for people, to make them more accessible and affordable," she said.

"For a long time it's been inaccessible, inconvenient and unaffordable to get your will done." 

But some critics point to potential problems that come with digitization. 

Risk of litigation

John Mayr, executive director for the Society of Notaries Public of British Columbia, says since the pandemic began notaries have noticed about a 50 per cent increase in demand for end-of-life legal documents like wills and power of attorney.

Mayr says he welcomes the proposed legislation to increase digitization, although he worries that it could open the door to "all kinds of interesting litigation in the future." 

"As the regulator I would strongly advise people to talk to a lawyer or talk to a notary," he said. 

Mayr says some of his concerns include undue influence over an elderly parent or friend, fraud and questions around which version of a will or power of attorney is the most valid or recent.

He suggests people consult with a lawyer or notary for advice on how to properly store or file important documents so they're protected and their validity isn't questioned. 

Seeking professional help

But Willful's Bury says keeping lawyers out of the equation for wills can save people a lot of time and money. 

"There is no requirement that says a lawyer has to draft your will," she said. 

Bury notes that, just like filing taxes, there are some more complicated cases where professional help is warranted — including wills involving foreign investments, trusts or a disinherited family member. 

Services like Willful are adequate for most people, she says, most of the time.

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