There's a Way for a Will

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s not too late to do your estate planning

If you’ve never gotten around to writing a will, or anything else related to end-of-life planning, you may be wondering how to do that in a time of social distancing.

There’s no doubt that it’s harder now than it would have been a few weeks ago, but estate planning attorneys say it can still be done. They caution people against opting for self-help legal forms.

“It’s still important to get proper advice,” says Marve Ann M. Alaimo, with Porter Wright Morris & Arthur in Naples, Florida. “Many estate planning attorneys are able to consult with clients by phone or through audio-video applications. Documents can be sent to and from clients electronically to minimize personal contact.”

It’s only natural to be feeling concerned about estate planning during a time of crisis. “Best thing is: Don’t panic,” advises Mary Merrell Bailey, at Your Caring Law Firm in Maitland. “If you don’t have an estate plan, you are not alone. Most adults in the United States do not have documents.”

Still, it’s worth the extra effort to make an estate plan now. “If you don’t have a durable power of attorney, health care surrogate, living will, last will & testament, revocable living trust, etc., it is more difficult and more expensive for loved ones to handle your affairs for you, and you lose much control over who makes decisions and who will inherit your wealth,” says Bailey.

Getting documents signed remotely can be a bit of a challenge, but can often be accomplished. “There may be ways to facilitate that,” says Alaimo. “Some documents can be remotely notarized. Not all documents require notaries to be valid, so that formality could be dispensed with for the time being.”

For the documents that do require notarization, Bailey says more and more states are allowing that to be done remotely. “This means that you may meet online, not in person, with the notary and get your documents legally signed,” she says.

However, getting a will or other document witnessed can be a more daunting task. In Florida, remote witnessing will be allowed beginning July 1, 2020. “In the meantime,” says Alaimo, “certain family members might be able to serve as witnesses for certain documents especially if those family members will play no significant role or get any unusual benefit.  Otherwise, some attorneys are helping to facilitate executions by taking extra precautions—using gloves and face masks, using glass partitions between parties, etc.”

Bailey notes that the rules are changing rapidly in response to COVID-19. “Look for law firms that are offering you options to meet via telephone or on Zoom or other online platforms to discuss your needs, and that are keeping up with the quickly-changing laws regarding remote notaries and witnesses.” Her firm has created a video to answer client’s questions about COVID-19 and estate planning.

If you do end up in a hospital and haven’t yet gotten your documents in order, you can at least ask the facility for Health Care Surrogate and Living Will documents.

“Your surrogate for health care decisions is the person (or persons) whom you want to be allowed to step in your shoes and ‘be you,’ legally, to make informed-consent medical care decisions to keep you alive because the doctors believe you will recover,” says Bailey. “Your agent under the living will is the person whom you want to be allowed to step in your shoes and ‘be you,’ legally, to ‘pull the plug’ and remove your artificial life support so you can die a natural death if you are unable to communicate yourself and at least two physicians have said there is no hope that you will recover.”

Much better to get things done ahead of time. “Planning in advance,” says Bailey, “gives you control, increases your options, makes it much easier for your loved ones to help you, and is far less expensive overall.”

For more information on this area of law, see our estate planning overview. For information on more legal questions regarding COVID-19, visit FindLaw’s legal center, or find more articles on superlawyers.com/articles (search for COVID-19).

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of estate planning, wills, trusts, and probate and estate administration.

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