I hope this finds you and your family safe and healthy. In recent weeks, I’ve received many texts, emails and calls regarding estate planning in light of the COVID-19 crisis: elder clients concerned about contracting the illness, parents with teenage children who feel guilty that they don’t have any estate plan at all, and others “finally getting around” to attending to their estate planning after cleaning out closets and knocking out all that yard work. Below are some of the more common topics that I’ve been asked about recently.
Media attention on estate planning in light of COVID-19
There has been a lot of attention in the media about estate planning including, a very helpful interview on NPR, “How To Make Your Estate Plan Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic” and the Wall Street Journal covered a thoughtful exploration of a parent who wanted to leave the family cottage to this children, “Creating an Estate Plan So Your Kids Don’t Inherit a Headache.”
The media has also covered various aspects of using online tools for estate planning. This may be an appealing option given that you don’t need to leave your home and it may feel financially “safe,” but while tech makes it easier to buy things, those things generally become very commoditized – meaning they are competing only on price, rather than on the product’s quality or its suitability for each family’s specific set of planning needs.
A few cautions about online estate planning tools
A concern with these websites is that they provide forms and some limited guidance, but it is not the same as sitting down face to face (or Zoom to Zoom) with an attorney with years of experience in working with actual, real life banks, insurance companies, and Probate Judges. One of the most concerning limitations is that if a bank or court refuses to recognize a document, you do not have a lawyer to represent your interest. If the online form was not properly prepared or witnessed and notarized, it may be too late and it’s as if there were no estate plan at all.
Despite being properly prepared and executed by a lawyer, banks routinely tell clients that they will not accept durable powers of attorney. However, the attorney that prepared the forms will be able to quickly straighten this out with a short phone call. A website cannot offer the same back-up and support, and an attorney would not stand behind those online forms.
Consumers should also be aware of the longevity and stability of any company that offers online estate planning.
How to get started on creating or revising an estate plan
Clients sometimes are puzzled why I ask detailed questions about their children, their parents, their businesses and their values. These are all critical inquiries in addressing a client’s complete estate planning needs. For most clients, preparing just a will doesn’t come close to helping them, something they don’t realize until after we are WELL into the process.
Below are some basic issues to tackle in reviewing your current estate plan:
- Review your documents and make sure they reflect any major life changes: marriages, births/deaths, major purchases or sales of property or other assets, relocation to another state, buying a property in another state, etc.
- Confirm the provisions of the will and trusts direct that the property pass to those individuals and/or charities that reflect your current wishes and the needs and best interests of the beneficiaries. Just as other people change through the years, we do too. Our thinking today could be radically different than when we did the original plan.
- Confirm the roles of the people of named in your documents. Are the executors (in the will) or the trustees (in a trust), as well as all other successors suitable, able and willing to serve in the role they are named in? People change their thinking, move away and even drop out of your lives as the years go by.
- Confirm all beneficiary designations for retirement accounts, life insurance policies and other accounts that designate beneficiaries. The companies are legally obligated to distribute funds to the person named as a beneficiary and the only way to confirm is to get a copy. This is especially important for divorced individuals. Often clients have forgotten that they had changed a beneficiary or filled out a change and never sent it in.
- Know your login information for all of your online accounts. Make sure each account has a “username” and “password,” and make sure to keep track of them.
- Where are your estate planning documents, who has them, and who did you tell about their location? You can have the finest estate plan known to man, but if it can’t be found, it’s not going to be useful.
- Update your advance directives, including health care proxy, living will and power of attorney, to be sure they express your current wishes and authorize your chosen agents to make medical and financial decisions in the event you cannot do so.
Our team has a series of short videos that explain estate planning, “The Eight Most Common Estate Planning Mistakes,” which can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/354951670.
We also have 2 podcasts that explore the basics of estate planning:
- The Legal Lowdown: Trust and Estate Planning Part 1
- The Legal Lowdown: Trust and Estate Planning Part 2
For more information
The trusts and estates practice group at Barton Gilman, led by Parish Lentz, assists clients with a comprehensive approach to address their estate planning needs. Clients have very different situations and priorities that the estate group fulfills by preparing a total plan, not just individual documents, including a careful review of retirement plans and insurance with beneficiary designations that are not controlled by wills or trusts. For more information about our comprehensive services in this area, please click here.