As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread through the country, more people are realizing the importance of getting their estate planning documents in order. Those over age 60 are particularly at risk for developing complications from the novel coronavirus infection. Having in place documents — including a durable power of attorney, a health care proxy, a medical directive, a HIPAA release and a will — is essential in the event that illness strikes.
Although planning one’s estate is a top priority, people don’t want to put themselves or others at risk while doing it. Elder law and estate planning firms across the U.S. are well aware of this concern – both for their clients and their own staff — and have devised creative solutions for clients to execute their documents while limiting or eliminating contact between participants. Strategies include the drive-up solution, taking special precautions with office meetings, and (in some states) executing the documents remotely.
The Drive-Up Solution
This method involves all parties driving to a parking area – perhaps a lot adjacent to the attorney’s office, the client’s driveway, or an assisted living facility parking lot. At a minimum, the attorney and client will need to be present, although witnesses and/or a notary may also be required, depending on the document being executed and state law. One person, usually a law firm staff member, takes documents from car to car so the parties can roll down their windows and sign with minimal contact. Everyone can bring antibacterial wipes with them to clean their hands after the document execution has been completed. It’s unorthodox but it works and keeps everyone safe.
Some firms are using still another variation of the car method: the attorney drives to the clients’ house and from the car witnesses them signing the documents on their porch.
Meeting at the Office
In cases where the physical law office remains fully or partially open, some firms are executing documents in the office but taking precautions to social distance and to make the process go quickly.
The firm may use a large conference room – or perhaps several separate rooms – to prevent close contact between the parties. All surfaces are thoroughly sanitized, pens not shared, and careful hand-washing encouraged both before and after the document execution process. Gloves may be used by everyone to avoid contact.
Many firms spread out appointment times – perhaps even scheduling them in the evening or on weekends – to keep the number of people in the office at one time to a minimum. Key to safe in-office signings is for the clients to review the documents thoroughly and communicate any concerns by phone or video conference before physically meeting so the document execution can be completed as quickly as possible.
Like everything else these days – work, schools, doctor visits, birthday parties, and more – document execution is also going digital during the COVID-19 crisis. Details of elder law and estate planning documents can be worked out over the phone or through video conference calls or email exchanges. When everything has been prepared successfully, the actual document execution may be able to take place online. In Indiana, legislation has already been enacted to allow parties to conduct document executions virtually through Zoom, Google Duo, or other virtual platforms. In the wake of the pandemic, Indiana also now allows for video notarization. A number of other state legislatures are moving towards passing similar temporary laws so that clients can seamlessly execute their estate planning or other documents without endangering themselves or their attorneys. The key item to keep in mind when utilizing the new virtual legislation for Indiana is that 90-days after the national health emergency has ended, such documents must be re-executed to comply with the State statutes regarding proper document execution.
No one wants to think about death or incapacity, and people come up with many reasons to put off planning their estates. But in this unprecedented health crisis, worries about the safety of executing essential documents should not be a factor in the decision.
Severns & Howard is also continuing to take measures to keep our clients, their families, and our staff healthy and safe. Therefore, during this unprecedented time, Severns & Howard is taking all precautions to keep everyone safe and well by adjusting our prior practices and procedures. Due to Covid-19, Severns & Howard is now operating on a limited contact basis. We will continue to meet with our clients via telephone and video conferences where possible and will be conducting limited in office meetings as necessary to meet our client’s legal needs. We will be scheduling only one to two in-person client meetings per day to maintain social distancing practices and limit the number of guests and staff in our office each day. Our office staff will be operating remotely when possible and there will always be a staff member in the office to receive telephone messages, process mail, and meet any in-office needs of our clients. Our staff is cleaning all areas and surfaces before and after every meeting, as well as wearing masks during all in person meetings. We have also utilized the virtual option when it comes to document execution. We have coordinated with nursing homes, assisted living facilities and families to allow for our clients who are not able to have visitors to be able to execute their documents.
Severns & Howard, P.C. is here for your legal needs and are willing to work with you to find solutions to allow us to best serve you during this difficult time. For more information and to leave a message for a free intake call with our paralegal Alesha, please call our office at 317-817-0300. Thank you for your patience, understanding, and flexibility as we venture into these new procedures and practices.