Finalizing Estate Planning Documents while Social Distancing

After the initial shock of the pandemic, people are realizing not just that they need to update their wills, but the people who have been named in important roles. In a recent article from The New York Times, “What to Know About Making a Will in the Age of Coronavirus,” one person said, “I think I still have my jerk brother as the trustee. I need to change that.”

However, with social distancing now being the new norm, some necessary processes for finalizing estate plans are calling for extra creativity. While lawyers can draft any necessary documents from their home offices, the documents need to be signed by clients and, depending upon the document and the state, by witnesses and notaries. These parties usually need to be in the same room for the documents to be considered legally valid.

New York’s Governor Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order on March 7 that declared a disaster emergency in the state and temporarily gave notaries the authority to authenticate documents by videoconference. Other governors have also issued executive orders to allow video notarizations, including Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington. It’s safe to say that more states will probably permit this as time goes on.

However, besides needing notarizations, wills in New York State and other documents require two unrelated witnesses in the room when the document is signed. That also goes for the health care proxy, which gives a person the ability to name someone to make medical decisions on their behalf, if they become incapacitated.

One New York attorney used a video conference to watch two clients and their witnesses, located more than 100 miles away from his home office, sign new financial powers of attorney and health care proxies. He used his laptop to record a video of the proceedings, while clients used their phones. The client couple sat on the enclosed porch of a friend’s house in a distant county and signed the documents, while their friends stood six feet away. When the couple finished signing, they stepped away and their friends moved in to sign the documents, all in view of the attorney and all, of course, wearing vinyl gloves.

The documents were then scanned and sent to the attorney by email and he notarized them. They will also be mailed to him at his home, and then he will authenticate the documents.

In New Jersey, notaries need to be physically present at the signing of documents. One attorney took extra steps for two ER nurses, both single mothers and on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak. He met them in the front yard of one of their houses, where a table had been set up and rocks were used to hold down the documents from blowing away in the wind. Everyone wore gloves and brought their own pens. One nurse served as witness for each other, and another friend was a witness for both. After each person signed, they stepped away, while another stepped up to the table.

Not every state is making changes to permit these documents to be witnessed and notarized, so there may be many outdoor signings taking place in the weeks and months to come. Speak with your estate planning attorney, who will know the laws that apply to your state.

Reference: The New York Times (March 26, 2020) “What to Know About Making a Will in the Age of Coronavirus”

If Not Now, When? It is the Time for Estate Planning

What else could possibly go wrong? You might not want to ask that question, given recent events. A global pandemic, markets in what feels like free fall, schools closed for an extended period of time—these are just a few of the challenges facing our communities, our nation and our world. The time is now, in other words, to be sure that everyone has their estate planning completed, advises Kiplinger in the article “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

Business owners from large and small sized companies are contacting estate planning attorney’s offices to get their plans done. People who have delayed having their estate plans done or never finalized their plans are now getting their affairs in order. What would happen if multiple family members got sick, and a family business was left unprotected?

Because the virus is recognized as being especially dangerous for people who are over age 60 or have underlying medical issues, which includes many business owners and CEOs, the question of “What if I get it?” needs to be addressed. Not having a succession plan or an estate plan, could lead to havoc for the company and the family.

Establishing a Power of Attorney is a key part of the estate plan, in case key decision makers are incapacitated, or if the head of the household can’t take care of paying bills, taxes or taking care of family or business matters. For that, you need a Durable Power of Attorney.

Another document needed now, more than ever: is an Advance Health Care Directive. This explains how you want medical decisions to be made, if you are too sick to make these decisions on your own behalf. It tells your health care team and family members what kind of care you want, what kind of care you don’t want and who should make these decisions for you.

This is especially important for people who are living together without the legal protection that being married provides. While some states may recognize registered domestic partners, in other states, medical personnel will not permit someone who is not legally married to another person to be involved in their health care decisions.

Personal information that lives only online is also at risk. Most bills today don’t arrive in the mail, but in your email inbox. What happens if the person who pays the bill is in a hospital, on a ventilator? Just as you make sure that your spouse or children know where your estate plan documents are, they also need to know who your estate planning attorney is, where your insurance policies, financial records and legal documents are and your contact list of key friends and family members.

Right now, estate planning attorneys are talking with clients about a “Plan C”—a plan for what would happen if heirs, beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries are wiped out. They are adding language that states which beneficiaries or charities should receive their assets, if all of the people named in the estate plan have died. This is to maintain control over the distribution of assets, even in a worst-case scenario, rather than having assets pass via the rules of intestate succession. Without a Plan C, an entire estate could go to a distant relative, regardless of whether you wanted that to happen.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 16, 2020) “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

The Coronavirus and Estate Planning

As Americans adjust to a changing public health landscape and historical changes to the economy, certain opportunities in wealth planning are becoming more valuable, according to the article “Impact of COVID-19 on Estate Planning” from The National Law Review. Here is a look at some strategies for estate plans:

Basic estate planning. Now is the time to review current estate planning documents to be sure they are all up to date. That includes wills, trusts, revocable trusts, powers of attorney, beneficiary designations and health care directives. Also be sure that you and family members know where they are located.

Wealth Transfer Strategies. The extreme volatility of financial markets, depressed asset values,and historically low interest rates present opportunities to transfer wealth to intended beneficiaries. Here are a few to consider:

Intra-Family Transactions. In a low interest rate environment, planning techniques involve intra-family transactions where the senior members of the family lend or sell assets to younger family members. The loaned or sold assets only need to appreciate at a rate greater than the interest rate charged. In these cases, the value of the assets remaining in senior family member’s estate will be frozen at the loan/purchase price. The value of the loaned or sold assets will be based on a fair market value valuation, which may include discounts for certain factors. The fair market value of many assets will be extremely depressed and discounted. When asset values rebound, all that appreciation will be outside of the taxable estate and will be held by or for the benefit of your intended beneficiaries, tax free.

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATS). The use of a GRAT allows the Grantor to contribute assets into a trust while retaining a right to receive, over a term of years, an annuity steam from the Trust. When the term of years expires, the balance of the Trust’s assets passes to the beneficiaries. The IRS values the ultimate transfer of assets to your intended beneficiaries, based on the value of the annuity stream you retain and an assumed rate of return. The assumed rate of return, known as the 7520 rate comes from the IRS and is currently 1.8%. So, if you retain the right to receive an annuity stream from the trust equal to the value of the assets plus a 1.8% rate of return, assets left in the trust at the end of the term pass to your beneficiaries transfer-tax free.

Charitable Lead Annuity Trusts. Known as “CLATs,” they are similar to a GRAT, where the Grantor transfers assets to a trust and a named charity gets an annuity stream for a set term of years. At the end of that term, the assets in the trust pass to the beneficiaries. You can structure this so the balance of the assets passes to heirs transfer-tax free.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about these and other wealth transfer strategies to learn if they are right for you and your family. And stay well!

Reference: The National Law Journal (March 13, 2020) “Impact of COVID-19 on Estate Planning”