As Pandemic drives surge of interest in wills, lawyers navigate social distancing and the law

As Pandemic drives surge of interest in wills, lawyers navigate social distancing and the law

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Lawyers have had to make up new practices on the fly, with lockdown orders and safety protocols calling for masks in the boardroom and meetings at picnic tables, porches, even parking lot drive-throughs. The Minnesota State Bar Association, worried that obstacles posed by the pandemic might make it tough for people to put their affairs in order — for example, when a client lives in a skilled nursing facility on lockdown and can’t go to an attorney’s office to sign documents — pushed for a change in state law to uphold wills drawn up with minor technical flaws.

A bill to put the so-called “harmless error” rule on the books was unanimously approved April 8 by the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division. It was signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday as part of a larger COVID relief package. The law is in effect from March 13, the date Gov. Walz declared a peacetime emergency, until Feb. 15, 2021. Buying life insurance during the coronavirus pandemic? What to know, the spike in estate planning demand can’t be measured in court — wills don’t show up there until people actually die — but anecdotal evidence, including online searches, shows that plenty of people have death on their minds.

Searches for “get a will” and “last will and testament” are way up in the past month, Plenty of attorneys say they’re hearing from both new estate planning clients and old ones who want to update their papers.

“This is a great time to start,” said Mary Farquhar, of Shoreview, who with her husband hired an attorney to help them draw up legal papers. “You can find that house title, that marriage certificate. What else are you going to do? You’re home anyway.”

What is a will

A will is a legal document that sets forth your wishes regarding the distribution of your property and the care of any minor children. If you die without a will, those wishes may not be carried out. Further, your heirs may end up spending additional time, money, and emotional energy to settle your affairs after you’re gone.

Navigation of social distances and the law

Most lawyers started before the pandemic arrived, and though social distancing has made it harder to get documents signed in person or to visit the Social Security office for paperwork changes, they didn’t feel rushed. “I’m not a doctor or nurse who is really feeling the weight of exposure, as one rightly expressed, “If we have to wait to file something properly, I can wait.”

Another lawyer said she’s had to improvise her estate planning practice, using her husband and college-aged daughter as witnesses if necessary. The backyard picnic table serves as an office. She further implies that her father-in-law, a former dean of a University “just laughs” at what she’s doing. “He asked, ‘You’re signing wills in your yard?’ And she’s  like, ‘Yeah,’ ” she said. But she said it’s possible to meet statutory requirements and still keep safety protocols in place. “You can get documents validly signed, even with what’s going on,” she said, telling her clients to bring their own pens. She’s wary of documents that are shuttled back and forth, because paper can carry viruses. She’s consulted with her son, an emergency room doctor. And he’s been OK with everything I’ve said so far, she said. She also add that she’s seeing another big change in her public service work. As program director for Wills for Heroes, a program of the State Bar, she and other volunteer attorneys provide free estate services for police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders. But when the pandemic broke out, Wills for Heroes expanded its focus, she said. So now they’re offering the same service to doctors, nurses and others on the front lines of the pandemic fight.

Estate Planning?

Estate planning is the process of anticipating and arranging, during a person’s life, for the management and disposal of that person’s estate during the person’s life, in the event the person becomes incapacitated and after death.

The most basic step in estate planning involves writing a Will. Other major estate planning tasks include the following:

Limiting estate taxes by setting up trust accounts in the names of beneficiaries.

Establishing a guardian for living dependents

Creating or updating beneficiaries on plan such as life insurance, IRAs and 401(k)s.

Setting up funeral arrangement.

Establishing annual gifting to qualified charitable and nonprofit organization to reduce the taxable estate. 

Naming an executor of the estate to oversee the terms of the will

Setting up a durable power of attorney (POA) to direct other assets and investments

Get help

If you would like to learn more, call us today, any one of our estate planning attorneys would be happy to assist you.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. The content of this blog may not reflect the most current legal developments. No attorney-client relationship is formed by reading this blog or contacting Morgan Legal Group.

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