Attorneys see surge of requests for wills as coronavirus takes its toll across the U.S.
Attorneys and other experts specializing in end-of-life affairs say they have seen a surge in requests for help with wills and end-of-life legal documents in the past few weeks.
"A lot of people don't want to address their mortality, and now that this pandemic has occurred, it actually accelerates their concerns for getting their affairs in order," said Jack Garniewski, president of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils and a CPA in Greenville, Delaware.
Some have had documents in place for years, but COVID-19 prompted a rush of updates because financial situations have changed or families have grown.
The situation is especially true among first responders and medical workers. These frontline workers fear on-the-job contact will kill them and leave grieving family members with no clear instruction about what should happen to their children and finances.
Colin Ross, a surgical ICU nurse at Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin, began tracking COVID-19 months ago when it struck China and especially after it spread to Italy.
"A large part of me thought this might stay contained in Asia," the 36-year-old said. "Once it reached Italy, I knew it was only a matter of time before it came here."
By the time the first cases arrived in the United States, Ross had seen reports of the high numbers of health care workers globally who contracted the virus. He decided to discuss the subject with his wife, Kate Bero, a 35-year-old physical therapist.
They were walking their dog, Gri, and Ross explained his wishes if he were to get sick and be on a ventilator.
"I said, 'This is what I would want the end of my life to look like,'" he said. "She acknowledged it, and we came home."
The couple recently began drafting a will using a template provided by an attorney friend.
Since the virus first appeared in the U.S. in January, more than 5,400 have died and more than 239,000 have been infected, the CDC reported Friday.
Some researchers predict the daily death toll could more than double by mid-April, meaning that more people would die of the virus than heart disease, the nation's No. 1 killer.
Legal experts say that while it may be unpleasant to contemplate one's mortality, it is crucial to have a will in place to determine what will happen with children, property and possessions.
"Our clients are naturally concerned about their loved ones, and when they are faced with a situation like this, they want to make sure their families are cared for," said Austin, Texas, estate planning attorney Glenn Karisch. "They don't necessarily think they are going to die, but they do want to make things easier on their family members."
Laws concerning "last wills and testaments" vary by state. Such documents generally detail which people or organizations will get a person's belongings, who will manage property left to minor children and who will make sure terms of a will are carried out.
Generally, if people die without a will, their property is distributed to their closest relatives, beginning with their spouse and children, then possibly more distant relatives - a procedure that attorneys warn can leave heirs confused or with lifelong bitterness.
Some states, including Texas, also recognize so-called "holographic wills" in the handwriting of the deceased, who must also have signed it for it to be legally valid. Experts say that such documents often contain ambiguous phrases that can then tie up an estate in court for months or years and cost thousands in legal fees.
Challenges plague the process
Getting a will drafted in the middle of a global pandemic brings challenges. For one thing, such attorneys are now in high demand, meaning it could take days or weeks to find one with an opening.
Nalluri said the first several lawyers he called were too overwhelmed to draft his will. He finally found one willing to handle court documents outlining his children's care if both parents were to die.
"Forget the stock market, forget all of that," he says. "I'm just nervous about the next few months."
Not only are many lawyers finding themselves busy with new clients, but navigating the necessary person-to-person interactions is difficult to do at 6-foot distance.
Travis County, Texas, Probate Judge Guy Herman said he began hearing from worried attorneys two weeks ago, days before local officials in Austin issued stay-at-home orders.
He said they first feared that orders would block them from performing the necessary business of drafting wills and other documents, including instructions if a person can no longer make decisions about his or her own care.
"They were saying, 'Judge, what are we going to do?'" Herman said. "In my opinion, it is an emergency situation to have a will."
Under current orders, Herman said, lawyers have continued drafting wills for clients, sometimes at a frantic pace, arranging via phone calls and teleconferences to collect necessary information about finances and heirs.
But unlike many legal records that can be signed electronically, wills require an in-person signature with two witnesses. Attorneys are finding new ways to complete the transaction, Herman said, including what he called a "drive through" service at a law firm in which an attorney and an assistant, both wearing latex gloves, watch clients sign wills in their cars while they stand in the parking lot to maintain social distance.
Two weeks ago, Austin attorney Carolyn Ostrom talked to a couple of elderly clients about the need to finalize their will. She had updated and mailed drafts to them a couple of months ago after an in-person meeting - before coronavirus became a threat - but had not overseen the final step.
By the time Ostrom called them to complete the work, health leaders had urged the elderly not to interact with anyone from outside their homes. Local authorities also had instructed residents to stay in their homes unless they must attend to "essential business."
Ostrom asked her husband to go with her to the couple's home, and the two handed the will back-and-forth through a window. The couple's neighbor also came to witness the signing, practicing social distancing by standing 6 feet apart from Ostrom and her husband.
"That was at the very beginning of this," Ostrom said, "but recommended procedures to get things signed are changing daily."
Attorneys across the nation have wrestled with the same requirements, Garniewski said. He wants organizations like his to persuade lawmakers to modify rules to make completing documents easier.
"In a pandemic like this," he said, "I just think about all the logistics people have to go through, especially the age group that is most susceptible to the virus."
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