What to know about making a will in the age of coronavirus

What to know about making a will in the age of coronavirus
When Joel Solomon sold his financial services firm in mid-January, he had been planning to call his estate lawyer to update his will and trusts. But with coronavirus cases spiking, Solomon and his wife, Nancy, decided to act immediately.

“The virus accelerated the need not to wait another week or another day,” said Joel Solomon, 66, who lives in Newport Beach, Calif. “We wanted to focus on, ‘What if both of us were gone tomorrow?’ There was a real sense of urgency to ensure the documents say what we want them to say,” especially when it came to helping their three-year-old grandson.

As deaths from the coronavirus climb, estate-planning lawyers said this week that they were noting a rise in calls from new clients and anxious existing ones who wanted to put their end-of-life plans in order. Besides seeking to draft or alter wills and trusts, many clients were changing trustees, executors and the agents they assigned to oversee their finances and health care if they were unable to make decisions themselves.

“It was quiet for a week, and then — oh my God, it was, ‘How will I ever get this all done?’” said Colleen Barney, a lawyer in Irvine, Calif., who represents the Solomons. After the initial shock of the pandemic, people began to focus on their own mortality and their heirs’ security, she said. “People were calling and saying, ‘I think I still have my jerk brother as the trustee. I need to change that.’”

With social distancing the new normal, lawyers said they were conducting client meetings by telephone, Skype, FaceTime or video conference. But experts’ guideline to stay roughly two metres away from others is creating unprecedented roadblocks.

While lawyers can draft documents from their own homes, the papers (even those downloaded from online services) generally must be signed by clients, witnesses and notaries. And though laws differ by state, these parties usually must be in the same room for the documents to be legally valid.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his March 7 executive order declaring New York in a disaster emergency, temporarily gave notaries the go-ahead to authenticate documents by video conference.

A few other states, including Texas, Florida and Virginia, already allowed remote notarizations. Governors of Connecticut, Iowa and New Hampshire recently issued executive orders to temporarily allow video notarizations. For more information, one resource is the National Notary Association.

Besides needing notarizations, however, wills executed in New York require two witnesses to be present in the room when the document is signed. So does a health-care proxy, which appoints an agent to make medical decisions if someone is incapacitated.

The clients, Phyllis Diamond, 74, a psychotherapist, and her husband, Peter Dignazio, 79, a retired engineer, bundled in coats and scarves, sat on the enclosed porch of their friends’ house in Columbia County, outside New York City, where the couple live. The couple have a second home nearby.

Diamond and Dignazio, wearing vinyl gloves, signed the papers at a large table, while their two friends, both witnesses, stood two metres away. When the couple finished signing, they moved away and their friends moved in, Diamond said.

“We thanked them profusely,” Diamond said of her friends. “We said we would have a virtual cocktail party.”

Diamond said she scanned the documents, which she sent electronically to Meyers, who notarized them. She is also sending him the paper copy, which he will authenticate.
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