Cheryl Winokur Munk, Contributor
Aug. 4, 2020
For some people, coronavirus has been a wake-up call, alerting them to the need to craft or update their estate plan.
Many people don’t have such a plan, which can include wills or trusts and powers of attorney for financial and medical purposes. But dying without one—or becoming incapacitated—can cause major headaches and monetary losses for loved ones.
For those who have putting it off, there’s no time like the present to reconsider. Here, then, are some things to think about, while the pandemic rages on—and beyond.
Consider your options
Now more than ever, there are a plethora of online DIY sites to help people with their estate-planning needs, and many of these sites have gained traction in recent months, particularly in the wake of stay-at-home orders and state shutdowns. Companies, too, are signing on with these online providers to help their customers or employees with the process.
Online DIY sites can work well, especially for people who are just starting out or have very little by way of assets. Ideal candidates for these sites may be young and single, newly married with no children or have a straightforward family structure, with no complexities.
However, as assets, family circumstances and complexities increase, working with a professional is likely warranted. Examples include families with special needs children, beneficiaries who may have addiction issues, or other reasons that require additional trustees or trust structures, says Dawn Doebler, a senior wealth advisor and principal with The Colony Group, a registered investment advisor.
People are sitting at home and concerned about their mortality, says Jonathan Forster, partner at Los Angeles law firm Weinstock Manion. They want to rush out and do estate planning because they don’t know what’s coming next, he says. Many “aren’t seeking out guidance—they are doing things in a fast and haphazard way and they aren’t being done correctly.”
Especially when people are nervous or feeling time-pressured, they may be tempted to rush through the process. But it can cause a significant burden—and expense—for heirs, if, for example, you set up a living trust, but don’t ever fund it, Forster says referring to a situation he’s now dealing with.
When people are nervous, they don’t always take proper care of to ensure things are being done correctly, he says. This is especially true for people who try to do everything themselves, but have complex needs, he says.
Whether it’s through an online provider, or an attorney you meet with in person, take the time to make sure the plan being put into place is one that’s best for your situation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or seek additional guidance.
Expect changes to the traditional estate-planning process
For those who choose to work with traditional providers, understand the process may be somewhat longer nowadays and it may continue to be different going forward.
To be sure, meeting in-person with an estate-planning attorney has been more of a challenge of late. Many attorneys have been inundated with requests for their services. There’s also the challenge of in-person meetings themselves. As a work-around, some attorneys are hosting client meetings over Zoom, FaceTime or another video conferencing option.
The document-signing process has also been more challenging in some cases because of states’ witness and notary requirements. To make things easier amid the pandemic, a number of states that had been planning to allow remote notarization implemented the practice earlier than initially intended. With remote notarization, a signer appears before a notary at the time of document signing using Internet technology. More than two dozen states have passed remote notarization laws, a portion of which are in the process of being implemented or soon will be, according to the National Notary Association.
In California, which does not allow remote notarization, mobile notaries are being used. They come to a person’s home wearing gloves and masks and signings can take place outside. There’s still a need for an additional witness who isn’t a beneficiary, however, which can also be challenging these days, says Forster, the attorney.
Certainly, there are other creative ways to sign documents in-person, or from a distance. Attorneys and clients could, for instance, meet in the attorney’s parking lot and sign documents on a car hood, far enough away to satisfy social distancing recommendations, but close enough to meet a state’s notary and witness requirements.
Do your homework
Whether you decide to use an attorney or use a do-it-yourself provider, it’s important to thoroughly research the options.
To find a law firm, ask family and friends or your local bar association. Be sure to do your own research on the firm’s qualifications and that of the attorney you’ll be working with. Try to ensure you are able to work with a partner and aren’t pushed down to an associate, Forster advises. Also be sure to ask the prospective firm how its document review process works, how the signing process will work, and the expected timing since many firms are working remotely and delays are to be expected.
To vet online firms, talk to others who have used the service and check out the firm’s reviews on services like Yelp and Better Business Bureau. Also ask friends, colleagues and attorneys in the industry.
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