For the first time, we have entered unchartered territory with the outbreak of Coronavirus and the community’s efforts to stop its growth. With statewide “Stay at Home” Order from Governor Newsom and Los Angeles County “Safer at Home” Order implemented on March 19, 2020, as discussed in our previous article, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in business and school closures in California. Governor Newsom’s announcement last week that public school students in California will not be returning to campuses for the remaining academic year has dawned on many, especially those that have been juggling between working at home and homeschooling their children—myself included.
Many of us have thankfully never dealt with anything like this—extended periods of isolation at home and long-term social distancing—in our lives. And, undoubtedly, social distancing and self-quarantining have caused issues—health, child, financial—resulting in anxiety, fear, and concern. Nonetheless, it has also drove families closer, allowing a myriad of activities to make time spent at home as active and meaningful as possible, including online learning, Netflix marathons, and good old-fashion board games.
During these unprecedented times, many have been forced to address the “what if” scenarios that were previously unthinkable, or at least the situations that no one ever wants to talk about or deal with. I often get phone calls around the new year when people make resolutions to get their affairs in order, or during times of tragedy, such as the death of Kobe Bryant, when people realize the frailty of life. Thus, too, as each day brings more closures and more quarantines, the need for estate planning becomes more real. Due to an outpour of calls last week from prospective and existing clients who were gravely concerned about creating or updating their estate plans due to COVID-19, I feel obliged to write about this. In light of the circumstances:
1. Make Sure Your Wills And Trusts Are Up-To-Date
Now more than ever, it is imperative to ensure that our estate planning documents reflect and carry out our wishes. It would be a good time to review your existing documents and make sure they reflect your current thinking. If you do not have a will and trust, take this opportunity while staying at home and practicing social distancing to conduct an inventory of your assets, debts and intentions so you can make sure the people you care for are taken care of. With that in mind, you should answer the following questions:
- Are the named executor(s) (in your will) and trustee(s) (in your trusts), as well as all successors, willing and able to serve? Do the provisions of your will and trusts direct that your property shall pass to the people and/or charities you wish to benefit in a manner that reflects your wishes and the best interests of those beneficiaries?
- Have there been any major life changes since you last executed your estate planning documents?
- Are the beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts and life insurance policies current and up-to-date?
- Do you know where your original will and trusts are located?
2. Make Sure Your Powers Of Attorney For Asset Management And Healthcare Directive Are Up-To-Date
More importantly, having up-to-date advance directives—power of attorney for asset management and power of attorney for healthcare directive—during this time, which express your wishes will authorize your agents to make financial and medical decisions for you in the event you become incapacitated, especially if you are part of the high-risk group susceptible to adverse conditions from being infected with COVID-19. If you are in self-quarantine, it may become burdensome or near impossible to manage your day-to-day finances and banking if you are not familiar with online banking or other remote means of managing your finances. Appointing someone you can trust who is not in this high-risk group as your attorney-in-fact would be an ideal solution. Review these documents to ensure they reflect your current wishes and name the persons whom you trust will be able to handle those matters on your behalf. Make sure you discuss your healthcare wishes with your agents so that they are prepared to make medical decisions that reflect your wishes, if necessary.
3. Focus On Estate Planning If you Have Not Yet Done So
Many people put off on starting, or delay completing, their estate planning while trying to finalize some difficult decisions. As the current crisis reminds us, we never know exactly when we will need our documents. Therefore, focus on completing your estate planning documents to the best of your ability now, and remember that you can make changes in the future.
4. Executing Your Estate Planning Documents Remotely
While the statewide and local “Stay at Home” and “Safer at Home” Orders, respectively, make gathering together for reviewing and signing documents more challenging, many attorneys have adopted procedures to ensure clients can review and receive their estate planning documents for execution remotely. You may not be able to physically meet with your attorney, but you can still create, update or finalize your estate plan. Many attorneys are now working remotely and are available via email, telephone and video conferencing to advise you. Documents can be drafted and emailed to you for review, or delivered to you by mail or a tracked delivery service.
There are a number of options for executing the documents. Many attorneys are approaching signings on a case by case basis. Some cases may be appropriate for in-office signing, while others may be better off with signing in the comfort of your own home while practicing social distancing, and wearing gloves and masks.
Meeting with your attorney is not always necessary for document signing. In certain circumstances, people may be able to sign documents on their own. Your attorney can forward you detailed instructions on how to have an out-of-office signing. You may need witnesses who can be friends or neighbors who are practicing social distancing while watching you sign the document. A mobile notary can also be scheduled to come to your location for the execution.
Speak with your attorney about how you should proceed with your estate planning in light of this new reality. At a minimum, you can get all your documents finalized and ready for execution when it is safe to venture outside your home.
Final Thoughts On Estate Planning And COVID-19
As an estate planning attorney, I deal with elderly individuals looking to protect their families. The elderly community is especially vulnerable against the Coronavirus. It is our social responsibility to try to do everything in our power from spreading this deadly disease.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sandy Wu is an estate planning and family law attorney at CHIAO & WU, LLP. She has over 15 years of experience advising clients on estate planning, trust and estate administration, probate litigation, and family law matters. Ms. Wu is a founding partner of the firm, encompassing practice areas of Estate Planning, Family Law, Corporate, Business, and Real Estate Law.