The advent of COVID-19 has impacted all areas of society. It has forced industries to get creative, and the legal field is no exception. Requirements for things to occur in person now put people at risk, and innovative solutions must be found so that the same activities can occur online. However, in the legal industry, these adjustments must ensure the same protections against fraud and the proper execution of documents.
In Texas prior to April 2020, Wills were required to have the signatures of the Will creator, two witnesses, and an in-person notary public. While many banks, businesses, and law firms have notary publics on hand, it can be a challenge to find one available in an emergency or after hours if needed. Finding a notary can be a frustration that deters people from properly legally executing a document, which could lead to disputes in the future.
However, due to the need for social distancing, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has issued a temporary executive order allowing some documents to be signed via videoconference.[*] The suspension applies only to Wills, powers of attorney, physician directives, and other documents relating to trust and estate planning. This is primarily because a COVID patient in the hospital might need to sign a Will in the hospital – and while hospital staff could act as witnesses, it would be unsafe for a notary public to be present.
While the temporary executive order does help in these specific instances, could and should it be broadened to include other documents? As the pandemic drags on, the need for social distancing continues, as does the need for legal matters to be resolved. Whenever possible, a videoconference signing would help protect the health and safety of both the parties to litigation as well as the notary publics. Additionally, online signings could increase access to notary publics, and encourage people to properly execute their documents, regardless of the pandemic. Perhaps seeing the success of the changed rules in the area of trusts and estates will spur a loosening of in person signatures in other areas of the law.
[*] Governor Abbott Temporarily Suspends Certain Statutes To Allow For Appearance Before Notary Public Via Videoconference, April 8, 2020, retrieved from https://gov.texas.gov/news/post/governor-abbott-temporarily-suspends-certain-statutes-to-allow-for-appearance-before-notary-public-via-videoconference on August 3, 2020.