The pandemic catapulted the use of many new virtual tools, and one of the new areas where they're being utilized is in virtual estate planning.
In normal times, an estate attorney or notary would help you set up a will, trust, or a medical care directive. However, 2020 isn't a normal year and, for many people, creating or changing their estate plan is a priority.
"[COVID-19] has made people aware of their vulnerabilities and the unpredictability of their health," says Laurie A. Hauptman, an estate, elder, and special needs attorney with Hauptman & Hauptman, PC in Livingston, N.J. "As a result, we have seen an uptick in people seeking estate planning."
Neel Shah, a certified financial planner and estate-planning attorney at Shah & Associates in Monroe, N.J., agrees. "Not since September 11, 2001, has planning been this prevalent in the minds of the general community," he says. "However, due to social distancing and quarantine rules, the process of estate planning has become quite different."
As virtual technology is changing the process, your options are changing, too. Here's what you need to know about making an estate plan in a virtual world.
Do-it-yourself estate-planning documents have been available online for decades, and they usually require witnesses and notarization. The pandemic has changed this process.
For example, before COVID-19, Kentucky required execution of a will in the presence of two disinterested witnesses. Those witnesses were required to appear in person and to sign the will in the presence of one another, explains Perry Schaible, an estate-planning attorney at Maggard Elder Law in Florence, Ky.
"The governor's stay-at-home order did not allow for this method of execution," she says. "The Kentucky State Legislature tackled the issue head on by implementing Senate Bill 150, which provides the ability for attorneys to use virtual witnessing and notarization of all legal documents, including estate-planning documents."
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill authorizing the use of remote online notarizations by New Jersey notaries as long as they have sufficient proof of an individual's identity. However, the legislation wasn't enough to validate a will.
"We have not been using the remote online notarizations since the new law does not address remote witnesses," Hauptman says. "In order for a will to be valid in New Jersey, you still need two individuals who are over the age of 18 to witness the signing of that document."
State requirements vary and, to create a plan that's valid, you need to understand your area's rules.
Depending on the complexity of your estate, you may choose to hire an estate attorney to execute electronic documents. To accommodate social distancing, many estate attorneys offer virtual estate-planning services by phone or videoconferencing.
Shah, who is licensed to practice in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, has conducted all of his legal-planning and financial-planning consultations via Zoom since March 2020.
"There is a hyper-efficiency and increased accessibility for folks seeking to do their planning now," he says. "There is no more travel time, and so long as you can use your smartphone, iPad, or computer to access a website or use an app, you can turn on a webcam and get started."
While Hauptman offers virtual appointments, document signings are done in person, outdoors, or in the firm's lobby, with proper social distancing and mask-wearing.
The future of estate planning
Virginia Senator Mark Warner and North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer introduced a nationwide bill that would allow remote online notarizations in any state, enabling people to conduct legal actions while staying safely distanced.
While it hasn't been passed as of this writing, estate attorneys are optimistic that the measures individual states have taken will stick around.
"I do believe that many of the systems and processes we've built during this pandemic are here to stay," Shah says. "They do provide a convenient and efficient method for the general community to conduct their planning."