Sorting Out Estate Plans, Divorce and Custody Under COVID-19

Rather than giving up, Ryan Kelly has found ways to adapt in clients’ time of need

Published in 2020 Michigan Super Lawyers Magazine

On Friday, April 17, Ryan M. Kelly and her father, John P. Kelly, completed their first virtual estate plan. “In these uncertain times, a lot of us are thinking about our financial affairs and medical decisions,” Ryan posted on LinkedIn. “Use this time as an opportunity to plan for your affairs, all without leaving your home.”

The following Tuesday, Super Lawyers spoke with her about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted her clients, her family law practice, and the adjustments they’re making in this unprecedented time.

So was Friday the first virtual estate plan you’ve done?

It was, yeah. It’s been really interesting because we started using Zoom pretty much as soon as things started to go awry. We were waiting for the governor to issue orders allowing for remote notarizations via video conferencing, which she did I think two days before. We’ve had some clients who were waiting to finalize their estate plans for that. We just did another one this morning and have two more on the way.

Are you finding a lot more people interested in doing them right now?

Definitely. It’s causing a lot of people to think about, ‘What would happen if I was incapacitated, or if I were to pass away?’ A pandemic has that effect on people. I normally don’t do any estate planning—my dad does that—but they’ve been humming along, so I’m helping out.

Is this something that’s possible for someone in a nursing home, locked down right now?

They would be able to. The hardest part is knowing the technology well enough to be comfortable with it, since family members can’t see them at this time. We’ve had a couple of elderly people who are homebound with their children or niece, and we’ve had them on the calls. One was almost ready to sign, and at the last minute she said, “No, I can’t get my head around the technology.” And I don’t blame her; she’s 87 years old. So I just told her, “That’s fine, we’ll wait. If anything changes, just let us know.”

We just did one with a couple today who are in their early 40s, and they’re both at home, with their kids there, and we made it work.

Are there any challenges with doing it this way?

There’s a long list. You have to look at their driver’s license; you have to record the entire conference; we’re required to store that for a certain period of time. I think it’s a good thing to have it recorded, especially for elderly people if they have concerns. But there’s a lot of protocol that has to go into getting these organized. It’s taking a little bit longer, but I think that’s to be expected.

Is it much different for the clients?

That’s interesting. I’d like to know what they think about it. For the people today, I think it was nice because they’re two busy professionals. It might even be hard for them to find the time to come to our office on the same day. For most clients, I think they like using Zoom or electronic means overall. I did a mediation for a divorce case about two weeks ago and my client afterward said, “I don’t know if you’re looking for reviews on how this went, but I actually really liked it.” So that’s cool.

Is it the type of thing that, assuming the world goes back to some form of normal, you might offer as an option?

Absolutely. I think this has really given us an idea of how we can implement this technology and it can work. It doesn’t work for everybody, certainly, but for these people it did. And I have another one on Friday that I think will work, too. I think you just have to evaluate what it is and how your clients might handle it.

I haven’t talked to anyone in family law lately. What’s difficult on the divorce and child custody fronts right now?

The idea that, right now, you’re at home trying to deal with all these things and a divorce at the same time, that adds increased pressure. I’d say most of my clients are handling it pretty well. More concern comes from those who are victims of domestic violence or substance abuse. I’m getting more calls from clients right now whose spouses over-indulge in substances. I was very concerned when this first started, but I think because people are forced to have their kids around that things have gone a bit better. That tends to help.

Have you had any clients with shared custody agreements dealing with difficulties there?

People who have already been divorced may be having a harder time than those going through it. How do you navigate the parenting situation going forward? That’s difficult. As soon as this started happening, my phone was going off like crazy. "Does this still mean I have to give them parenting time? What if they are a first responder or doctor? What if they’re essential and still going to work? What do I still have to do?" First it was, “I don’t think you can deny the other parent their time just because of an unprecedented pandemic,” but as we’ve moved forward the courts have given us more direction. We have clients who have supervised parenting only, so they have to go to a center, but right now all of those are closed. So they’re not seeing their kids at all, which is very difficult.

How much of your advice were you giving without really knowing?

Tons. Especially on the parenting stuff. Nobody has encountered this kind of situation in our lifetimes, so it was a big learning curve. But it has been helpful with things like this technology, since we didn’t have the time to dig into it before. We were just running the rat race every single day.

Have things settled a bit?

Yeah, as people have become more used to them. Certainly every time the governor issues new orders I get a lot of questions. But overall I think people have handled it way better than I thought they would.

Have you been struggling in day-to-day practice?

It’s completely different. All five attorneys are working remotely; our staff is all working remotely. It’s weird not to meet face-to-face with clients. It’s not all bad, it’s just different and takes some getting used to.

I think most people are open to the idea of this technology because they’re doing it in their workplaces, at their kids schools, they’re reading about it in the paper. The people I’m struggling with the most are attorneys who have been practicing a long time and have to learn this without the help of their support staff, because they’re at home.

Well congratulations. I’m glad your work can still happen.

Absolutely. We need to be able to do as much as we can. I’m hearing horror stories about attorneys saying, “I can’t practice law right now.” A lot of law is counseling and helping our clients. These people look to us for our advice and guidance and support, and we can provide that in a number of areas.

You have to think outside the box. Because otherwise what are you going to do? Are you going to shrivel up and die? Are you going to give up your bar license and stop practicing? You can’t do that. You have to find ways to still help people.


For more information and articles for legal professionals navigating COVID-19 as it relates to their law practice and clients, visit FindLaw’s COVID-19 resource center or visit superlawyers.com/articles (search for COVID-19).

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