The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every area of life — and estate planning is no exception. In this article, we’ll cover several key impacts on the industry and provide practical tips on how you can pandemic-proof your estate plan.
Greater awareness of mortality
Unfortunately, many people have had to experience friends or relatives passing away due to COVID-19. As a result, people are more aware of their own mortality and feel a greater sense of urgency to get their legal affairs in order. For this reason, it makes sense that many estate attorneys are reporting an increase in demand for their services.
This greater awareness of mortality has people paying particular attention to their medical-related legal documents, such as a power of attorney and HIPAA authorization. People have realized how important it is to think about their end-of-life wishes and prepare for the unexpected.
Less desire for face-to-face meetings
Fewer people are interested in attending face-to-face meetings. Even those who were previously technology-averse have adjusted to the new reality. Instead of commuting to crowded office buildings, consumers are more open to doing business through phone or video calls. Due to this, many attorneys now offer hybrid or completely virtual services.
Additionally, demand has skyrocketed for online resources to help people get their legal affairs in order. Fortunately, the pandemic has given rise to various online services to help people create and update their estate plans from the comfort of their homes.
An uptick in online notary legislation
Laws regarding the permittance of electronic wills and signing capabilities are gaining popularity in several states. Many state governments are enacting legislation allowing estate planning documents to be signed electronically. For example, the State of New York recently voted to make remote online notarizations (RON) permanent — joining thirty-four other states with permanent RON procedures.
Several states enacted temporary remote online notarization measures in response to the pandemic, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. However, these measures are due to sunset — and state legislatures will need to decide whether to let them expire or replace them with permanent RON capabilities.
How to pandemic-proof your estate plan
The pandemic has brought estate planning to the forefront of many people’s minds. There are several essential estate planning documents to consider, no matter what age or life stage you’re in.
Create or update these essential documents
- Last will & testament: Your will is where you outline your wishes regarding who inherits your assets when you pass away. It also allows you to name a person to manage the distribution of your estate, known as your executor, and someone to look after your minor children — known as a guardian.
- Durable power of attorney (healthcare): This document allows you to name someone you’d like to make medical decisions on your behalf if you cannot do so. This means decisions related to your medical care, treatment, and prescriptions. Also known as a “health care proxy” or “health care agent,” depending on your state.
- Durable power of attorney (finances): Also known as an attorney-in-fact, a financial power of attorney lets you give someone the authority to manage your finances on your behalf. This may involve financial transactions such as selling your real estate, filing your tax returns, or managing the investments in your retirement accounts.
- HIPAA authorization: When you sign a HIPAA authorization form, you consent for an individual or multiple individuals to access your personal medical information. These forms come into play if you’re in an accident and doctors need to inform your family of your condition so they can decide on the best course of treatment.
- Living will: A living will is another form that outlines your medical wishes. The difference is this form allows you to spell out what medical treatments you would want to be used to keep you alive — also known as life-sustaining measures. For example, if something happens and you are in a coma with no chance of recovery, would you want the plug pulled?
If you have young children and are concerned about their care if you become incapacitated, consider naming a guardian. Many people became ill from COVID-19 and were hospitalized from a few days to several weeks or even months. Designating a guardian ensures your children are taken care of if you are hospitalized or pass away.
Digital asset inventory
Digital estate planning should be part of your overall estate planning strategy. A standard will typically won’t account for digital assets such as your social media accounts, electronic files, websites/domain names, and e-commerce accounts like eBay or Amazon. Many people don’t realize a standard will doesn’t typically account for your digital assets. This is why it’s common to add a codicil to your will to outline your wishes for your digital assets.
Review beneficiary designations
One of the most common estate planning mistakes is not reviewing your beneficiary designations from time to time. It’s essential to confirm that the beneficiaries listed on your retirement accounts (401ks, IRAs), life insurance, and other non-probate assets are up-to-date. If you don’t want an ex-spouse or estranged child or sibling to have a claim to your wealth when you pass away, make sure to remove them as beneficiaries.
Have a conversation about your final wishes
There’s no time like the present to discuss your final wishes with your loved ones. Have an honest conversation about your wishes about your funeral arrangements and other end-of-life decisions, so there is no question about what you would have wanted when the time comes.
Share your estate plan with your advocates
Make copies of your estate plan and distribute them to your executor, guardians, and other advocates named in your will. Doing so allows them to ask questions to clarify their role and learn more about your wishes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it — and the impacts on the estate planning industry are likely here to stay for the foreseeable future.
The pandemic is a stark reminder of how important it is to prepare for the unexpected. Getting your essential estate planning documents in order is one of the best ways to prepare for the curveballs life might throw your way.