People can now sign a will, or hand over power of attorney, via a video chat platform such as Zoom or Skype.
A temporary amendment to the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006, which has just gone into force, means that wills, oaths, affirmations and declarations can be administered via a video link during level 4 and level 3 lockdown whose rules make it difficult for a document to be witnessed by two people at the same time and in the presence of the will-maker, as is required by the Wills Act 2007.
Crown-owned Public Trust and private digital wills player Footprint both launched new services today that take advantage of the new provision, which Footprint chief executive Angela Vale called "a very positive step in the right direction".
It is, price-wise. The Public Trust says with the new online set-up a will will take as little as 15 minutes and cost as little as $69. Footprint has packages starting from $100 for a single will (although its primary focus is on a $120-a-year annual subscription service).
But a campaigner for reform had mixed feelings about the move when contacted by the Herald this morning.
"It's not how I would have done it," Perpetual Guardian founder and Footprint director Andrew Barnes told the Herald this morning.
The rich lister says Footprint recommended the video- link solution to the Government as a temporary workaround as he saw "a massive increase in the number of people wanting to get their affairs in order, just in case" as the lockdown began.
But what he ideally wanted was a permanent change to the Electronic Transactions Act 2002, which gives electronic signatures the same legal weight as written signatures for nearly all contracts.
He wanted the Electronic Transactions Act extended to cover wills and power of attorney. Instead, the Government has opted to keep traditional handwritten signatures albeit with the new option for them to be witnessed via Zoom.
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Barnes has skin in this game. Beyond Footprint, he has a second digital wills company, Arken, in the UK.
But Lowndes Jordan partner Rick Shera backed his call.
E-signature software, from the likes of multinational Adobe with its DocuSign to local player Secured Signing, offered layers of security and audit trails along with convenience, Shera said.
(And an electronic audit trail would be useful for Barnes, personally. "I executed a will when I had a pulmonary embolism with two nurses - I think they were nurses - on the end of my hospital bed," he told the Herald earlier by way of illustrating what he sees as flaws in the current law around wills - see video above).
"Electronic signatures should take off in this environment," Shera told the Herald early in the lockdown.
LawHawk managing director Gene Turner said e-signature take-up was very low in New Zealand overall.
"The banks haven't all got themselves comfortable that digital signatures are fine, and if the banks won't accept them, lawyers won't either," the former Buddle Findlay partner said.
Legislative change extending the validity of e-signatures would help push them toward the mainstream.
But the video link workaround means that's off the table, for now.
The video link measure will stay in place until the Government's three-month Epidemic Preparedness (Covid-19) Notice 2020 expires on June 25, with the proviso that the Prime Minister can revoke or roll over the notice.