Making a will the digital way

SIGN HERE: Digital wills could be the way of the future, although a change of legislation will be required.
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SIGN HERE: Digital wills could be the way of the future, although a change of legislation will be required.

Digital signatures should be legally allowed on wills, says the boss of the largest trustee company in New Zealand.

Andrew Barnes, who created Perpetual Guardian from the merger of Guardian Trust and Perpetual Trust is on a mission to bring the wills and trusts industry into the digital age.

It has launched a "WillsPlus" online annual subscription service, which lets people create and store their wills, and other documents, securely in an online vault.

The service also allows users to update their wills.

But introducing a sophisticated digital strategy would be much easier if "wet" signatures with a pen could be replaced with digital versions, said Barnes.

He said wet signatures were a barrier for people making plans for their deaths.

"It's our belief every New Zealander should have a will, and every child should be protected by an estate plan," Barnes said.

Allowing people to sign wills remotely with digital signatures would make will-making more efficient.

"We are trying to make the will much more accessible and cheap so that everyone can get one," Barnes said.

Seven in 10 adults under 40 still don't have a will, he said.

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The country is still a long way from digital signatures on wills.

The Government's RealMe digital signature service can be used by anyone to create and use a PIN and password-protected digital signature.

But the use of digital signatures on wills is expressly barred by the Electronic Transactions Act. And to be legally valid, a will needs to be signed by two witnesses in the presence of the will maker.

Lawyer Andrew Easterbrook, a member of the Auckland District Law Society, said witnessing requirements were designed to make it hard to fake wills, and to ensure nobody was making wills under duress.

But, Easterbrook said: "I really can't imagine that in 20 years' time we will still be using paper wills.

"I would be in favour of taking a common-sense approach. A tonne of stuff is done online these days."

Any change would require legislation and processes would need to be developed to protect the integrity of will creation, but already some documents were being witnessed over Skype.

But he said that, like many lawyers, he believed only the simplest wills could be safely made without face-to-face legal advice.

Perpetual Guardian is working on Maori and Mandarin versions of its online will-making service, and Barnes said it had focused entirely on providing "fiduciary" services, instead of trying to be a wealth manager.

As well as its trust and wills services, Perpetual Guardian is the biggest "corporate" trustee, which includes overseeing KiwiSaver schemes. It has about 50 per cent of the corporate trustee market with its main rivals being Government-owned Public Trust and Trustees Executors.

 - Sunday Star Times

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