Coronavirus - personal tax, wills and charities

The legal profession has not been left untouched by Coronavirus and the ramifications of social distancing policies has led to various questions being raised with governing bodies, guidance being updated and best practice policies clarified.

Our team is busy updating clients in these challenging and uncertain times. We list below a number of points that might be useful.

UK Residence

A crucial question from some clients who may now be required to stay in the UK for longer than planned is whether and how this will affect their UK residence status for tax purposes.  Helpfully, HMRC have updated the guidance on the Statutory Residence Test (SRT) which has extended the 'exceptional circumstances' to cover Coronavirus (COVID-19). The guidance states:

"Where an individual is unable to leave the UK as a result of being quarantined, self-isolated in the UK, being asked by the employer to return to the UK temporarily, being advised not to travel from the UK as a result of the virus or due to closure of international borders, such circumstances can be considered as exceptional, and any days spent in the UK can be disregarded for SRT purposes."

This will provide some comfort for those individuals who do not wish to become UK tax resident, yet are currently unable to return to their country of residence.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against non-essential foreign travel on 17 March, and so our assumption is that individuals in the UK on that date, who then could not travel to a home jurisdiction as a result of that advice, would benefit from the exceptional circumstances exemption now included in the guidance.

Wills

Our team has seen an increased demand for wills. The signing of a will by the testator, and the witnessing of it by two independent witnesses, is an issue given the updated guidance which does not allow gatherings of more than two people (the signing of a will requires three people as a minimum). We have not yet introduced electronic wills in the UK, as the US have done. The Law Commission ran a consultation on the reformation of the law governing wills, which closed in November 2017, and has said that it would like to pave the way for electronic wills, however, this project is currently on hold and there is no indication as to when it may be re-visited.

The Solicitor's Regulation Authority has had to answer various, urgent questions on this point, such as "what should I do if I cannot witness a will in the client's presence?"  The given answer to that included determining whether the client has neighbours who could witness the signing at a distance or whether the attestation clause could be amended to cater for current circumstances. 

As a practical response to this issue, we have helped clients execute documents by the testator signing in a car or by a house window, with witnesses standing two metres away outside, but with clear visibility of the testator signing his name. We are finding creative ways to work with the current rules to help clients, and it may be that these types of measures will need to be taken more regularly for the time being. The necessity of such steps having to be taken will add weight to the argument that the law surrounding wills and how they are executed ought to now be revised and brought into line with modern practice. Please do let us know if you have any questions.

Charities

The Charity Commission has released COVID-19 guidance for the charity sector . This will be added to over time and after relevant consultations. Included in the guidance is confirmation that charity trustees can hold virtual meetings, but they should check if there is provision to do so in the governing document. Where there is no such provision, the decision to hold a virtual meeting should be documented. It should also be determined if amendments could be made to the governing document to allow the use of telephone facilities or virtual meetings going forward.  

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, or have other concerns about the impact of Coronavirus, please contact Jennifer Ridgway, Partner and Head of Michelmores' Tax, Trusts & Succession team.

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This article is for information purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Please contact our specialist lawyers to discuss any issues you are facing.