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Be mindful of estate planning amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Legal experts say having a sound estate plan

Legal experts say having a sound estate plan in place is key amid the COVID-19 pandemic.   Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

The coronavirus may prove to be the master teacher of our lifetime. The lessons are hard. Some we’ve grasped, some will come later, and others we may miss entirely. One of the first lessons: plan for the unexpected today, because who knows about tomorrow.

“Sadly, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds are dying unexpectedly and without the estate planning tools to assist the family members that they leave behind,” says Antoinette France-Harris, an associate professor of legal studies at Clayton State University in Atlanta.

One key piece of an estate plan is a will, also referred to as a last will and testament. In this document, you state how your property should be distributed upon your death, list guardians for any minor or disabled children, and designate someone to carry out your final wishes.

Despite the importance of a will, a 2017 study from Caring.com found that only 4 in 10 Americans had one.

If you die without a will [or trust], state law determines what happens to your assets, and potentially who takes care of your loved ones. The process is long and expensive.

“A big mistake that many have made is procrastinating and not having these documents in place for such a time as this," France-Harris said. "The time for estate planning is today."

Talk to a lawyer

You might be fretting about how you can get a will during the lockdown. There’s no need to worry. Adjustments are being made.

Right now, not being able to meet with clients poses challenges for Justin Angelino, a senior associate attorney at O’Connor, O’Connor, Hintz & Deveney in Melville. But he, like other attorneys, is finding solutions.

“I’ve been working with clients using FaceTime and Zoom for meetings in order to remotely attain information," Angelino said. "My goal is the same — to make sure all of the wishes of my client as to where they want their estate to go after they pass are properly and legally documented in writing.”

He said many couples are currently concerned about their mortality so taking care of their children financially is a top priority.

“The most important items to include for a couple with children are comprehensive trustee and guardian provisions to ensure the couple’s children are properly taken care of if a worst-case scenario takes place,” Angelino said.

Recently, his practice has seen an uptick in unmarried LGBTQ clients who wish to protect the disposition of their assets during the pandemic.

What's different now

For sure, it’s not business as usual. Generally speaking, in addition to the signature of the person drawing it up, a will requires signatures of two witnesses, who can't be beneficiaries. How do you get around this in the current environment?

“Thanks to an executive order by Gov. [Andrew M.] Cuomo, which temporarily allows remote witnessing and notarizing in New York State, obtaining legal services while home is possible," said Anthony Enea, managing partner at Enea, Scanlan & Sirignano LLP in White Plains. "All estate planning documents, including last wills, can be executed remotely via audio-video conferencing platforms.” 

Lawyers are showing their creative side.

“Some attorneys are passing documents through windows, some are doing meetings outside,” says Sherri Stinson, an estate planning attorney in Palm Harbor, Florida.

If you don’t have a referral from a loved one, a good place to find an estate-planning attorney is through the National Association of Estate Planners and Council's website, NAEPC.org.

The Do-It-Yourself option    

But what if you’re laid off or hesitant to spend anything extra just in case things get tougher down the road financially? In the best of worlds you would hire a lawyer. But there's no question the do-it-yourself option is better than nothing. Proceed smartly, though.

Money-saving expert Andrea Woroch of Bakersfield, California, recommends TrustandWill.com.

“You don’t have to pay high legal fees for an estate planning attorney," she said. "You can set up a will online for as little as $70. They give you step-by-step instructions with live chat support to help you through the process.”

There are many online resources like RocketLawyer.com, Gentreo.com, Nolo.com and LegalZoom.com.

“If you’re looking for guidance, you can connect with a lawyer over the phone for specific advice for your situation and about what is compliant with your state laws," said Charles Rampenthal, general counsel of LegalZoom.com. "This includes specific directions or advice on how to sign the will and have it properly witnessed."

So, while you’re going the do-it-yourself route, you’re not completely on your own.

Alternatively, reach out to your state bar association to see if it has forms needed to do a will and available to the general public, and if they offer any related services, said Shann Chaudhry, a San Antonio estate planning attorney who offers remote legal services across the country.

Chaudhry also recommended finding out if your employer, or groups to which you belong, provide access to companies like LegalShield, which has lawyers at reduced costs.

“Look to any membership organizations like AAA or AARP to see if they have cost-reduced service providers,” he said.

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