Here’s the macabre truth: With hundreds of thousands of confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the country—and the death toll steadily rising—estate planners are reporting an increase in calls and transactions by people wanting to put their affairs in order in case of their death.
But estate planning isn’t just for those with a life-threatening diagnosis. In fact, if you’ve never considered who will inherit your assets, or whom you’d appoint to be your power of attorney, now’s probably a good time. We spoke with several experts to find out everything you need to know about quickly securing your assets during the pandemic—or beyond. Keep reading for all the details.
Estate planning with a lawyer vs. online
If you’re panicked about getting your estate planning done quickly, maybe you’ve wondered: Can’t I just do it online?
While many lawyers advocate for working with a professional, there are situations in which it might make sense to take the do-it-yourself online approach.
“If you’ve already taken stock of your assets and decided on how it should be managed, creating an estate plan is rather straightforward,” explains Felix Sebastian of Legal Templates. “An attorney can draft one up for you in a matter of hours, or you can do so yourself by using forms provided by your state government.”
For those with relatively simple estate planning goals (i.e., a limited number of assets and beneficiaries, and no special circumstances), online services can be a great option, with the added perk of having an incredibly fast turnaround time.
“We have streamlined the process to make it easy and efficient,” says Patrick Hicks, head of legal at Trust & Will. “Most people finish in 15 to 30 minutes, but the process is driven by the individual, so anyone can take more or less time as they desire.
“Our process is much like TurboTax,” he adds. “One easy question at a time, and each question will then lead you through the process to collect and synthesize all of your information and decisions. Most people can complete it all with no preparation and no other documents needed.”
The downsides of DIY estate planning
If this sounds good to you, you wouldn’t be alone. Hicks says their service has seen a 50% increase in activity even compared with other busy times of the year, and Mary Kate D’Souza, founder of online estate planning service Gentreo, reported a 143% increase in membership over the past week alone.
And while there are certainly potential perks of using an online service (e.g., getting documents faster or saving money on lawyer fees), just be sure you understand what you’re actually getting: a set of unnotarized forms that will likely not include any sort of legal advice.
“Creating an estate planning document such as a will only gets you halfway there,” Sebastian says. “Pretty much every single state and territory of the U.S. requires that these documents be signed by witnesses and/or notarized.”
And on that note: While putting your online forms together can be done relatively quickly, it may end up taking you much longer to get those forms notarized, even if you have the option to do so remotely.
Lawyers urge clients not to delay their wills and trusts
If you’re considering working with a lawyer for your estate planning, the experts are advising you get to it—and fast.
“Since the COVID-19 outbreak, we have experienced a 30% increase in calls from people wanting us to draft powers of attorney, health care powers of attorney, and wills,” says family law and estate planning attorney Chelsea Chapman of McIlveen Family Law Firm.
Plus, beyond those new clients, estate planners are trying to juggle their existing roster of clients, too—who are, understandably, concerned.
“With the COVID-19 outbreak, we’re receiving an exponentially greater number of existing-client calls than usual,” says Judith Harris, an attorney and co-chair of the Estate Trust and Tax Group at Norris McLaughlin.
Although many law offices typically take several weeks to complete estate planning packages, exceptions can be made for emergency situations.
“In the event of an emergency, we can get documents done in 48 hours,” says Eido Walny, founder of the Walny Legal Group. “That’s one heck of a rush job, however, and would require skipping over a lot of other people in the process. As a result, clients who ask for that kind of turnaround should expect to offer all the cooperation that is asked of them and also to pay a hefty premium for the service. But it can be done.”
The final word
Ultimately, however you choose to get your estate planning done, there’s one key takeaway.
“Don’t wait,” Walny says. “Get the planning process started now. Estate planning is not death planning—these documents will help you during life, during illness, and also in death. Hopefully this crisis will pass, and when it does, these documents will continue to be valuable, unlike the 1,200 rolls of toilet paper hidden in the basement.”