An online estate planning company has launched a petition asking the Ontario government to amend a law that required people to sign wills in-person after an Angus Reid survey found that majority of Canadians were unsure of how to create or complete their wills in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Willful’s petition asks the province to permanently allow digital signing, storage and witnessing of wills, which they argued will reduce fraud by providing “secure identity verification and an audit trail, and secure digital storage will prevent wills from being unlawfully destroyed.”
Currently, Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act requires typed wills to be printed and signed in the presence of witnesses who also sign the will — which is not an easy task with social distancing measures in place.
Willful’s survey, conducted through Angus Reid, found that “permanent changes to Ontario wills and estates legislation, including allowing electronic signatures and secure online storage, would enable more Canadians to finalize their wills and power of attorney documents.”
According to a July 10 survey of 1,500 Canadians, 62 per cent of Ontarians surveyed said they were thinking more about emergency preparedness because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In spite of this, 65 per cent of respondents living in Ontario said they didn’t have an up-to-date will, mainly due to confusion around certain regulations and signing.
Every province has a default set of rules that dictate what happens if a person dies with or without a will. If a person dies without a will, however, their estate becomes “intestate,” and the province’s Succession Act sets how the dead’s assets are distributed.
“COVID-19 caused thousands of Canadians to create or update their will, but the requirements for printing, signing, and in-person witnessing meant many weren’t able to complete this important task,” said Erin Bury, Willful’s CEO, in a statement.
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“Technology is meant to make things more accessible and more secure — it’s time to modernize Ontario’s estate laws in order to help Canadians finish their estate planning documents online.”
Though it is illegal to sign or store a will online in Ontario, the survey found 84 per cent of Canadians already believed that digitally signing a will was legal, while 92 per cent of Canadians believed it was legal to store wills online. According to the survey, 52 per cent of respondents under the age of 35 said they would have completed their wills earlier if they were able to do it online.
Bury told Global News her company saw a 500 per cent spike in demand from Canadians looking to start or finish their wills shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the country.
“Creating a will is something that can be easy to procrastinate. You don’t really know when you’re going to need it, and a lot of people — especially who are younger — think, ‘well I don’t need to get one in place until I’m a lot older,’” she said.
“COVID-19 really reminded people that, unfortunately, the unexpected can happen any time. And a lot of people were looking to check this off their list, knowing that if they were to get sick with COVID-19 or even if they weren’t, it was just better to have these documents in place.”
Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey passed an emergency order on April 7 that allowed for residents to have virtual witnesses present for will signings, but in-person signatures were still needed to sign the actual documents. It was extended until April 22, but only temporarily as a result of the pandemic.
The Office of the Attorney General did not respond to media requests from Global News for comment.
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