The uncertainty of COVID-19 has caused many Americans to ponder certain circumstances they may never want to materialize. While planning for the unknown can be unpleasant and difficult, it’s crucial to giving you and your family peace of mind. Because estate planning can be stressful, it’s easy to put it off.
According to a Caring.com and YouGov survey, 25% fewer people have a will now than in 2017. Two common reasons for putting it off was due to a lack of knowledge and cost. But, with the current state of the nation, estate planning may shift to a top priority for Americans.
It’s important to note, estate planning is not just for affluent individuals. While good estate planning can lead to desirable financial outcomes under the right circumstances, estate planning in its most basic form involves implementing the legal steps and directives that are necessary to ensure that your health and your assets are managed properly in the event of incapacity and death.
That said, since many Americans may be either revisiting or starting their estate planning from scratch, here are 5 things to know about estate planning in these challenging times:
1. Most Estate Planning Work Can Be Done at Home
Although many of us are currently sheltering in place, it may still be possible to create your estate plan. In recent years, online, cost-effective estate planning platforms have emerged helping individuals assemble documents ranging from a simple will and testament to more complex estate plans such as a living trust. These platforms can make it easy to create an estate plan from anywhere. Which means you can get your plan sorted even while you’re stuck at home.
Keep in mind, while creating an estate plan online might be the most available option at this moment, it may only suffice for those with certain financial circumstances moving forward. According to Forbes, do-it-yourself services may not be able to address the intricacies of estate planning for individuals with complicated personal and financial lives.
Therefore, if your financial circumstances are more complex, a professional might be a better fit to help you create the documents that can make your estate official and advise you on how taxes may affect your plan.
Ultimately, you will have the final say on how you want your estate to be managed and executed, but a professional could help you arrive at educated, rational, and sensible decisions. Even though an estate professional will more than likely charge you a fee, the cost of having expert help may ultimately save you thousands of dollars in costs, legal and otherwise, if you make a mistake.
2. It Might Be Possible to Execute Documents From Home
According to the National Notary Association, notarized documents can help to deter fraud, establish that the signer understands what they are signing, and that they are willing to participate in these transactions. Since wills include sensitive and complex information, it is sometimes required by law that they are notarized.
Regulations vary by state, but in most cases a will includes a self-proving affidavit , which generally needs to be notarized. To confirm the validity of the signers, until recently, notaries and signers needed to meet in person.
Due to COVID-19, more states are allowing for remote online notarization (RON) than ever before, with more expected to follow suit. This may allow you to have your documents notarized without leaving your home. Currently, the states with temporary authorizations to perform RON are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
However, laws on signature requirements vary by state and by type of document (e.g. will vs trust), so verify exactly what requirements your state holds for things like witnesses and notarization.
3. Consider Having Healthcare Directives in Addition to a Will
Healthcare directives can help individuals clarify their preferences for care, should a situation arise when they’re not able to effectively communicate with family or medical professionals. There are a few different types of healthcare directives available, here’s a bit more about a few of the options.
A health care surrogate makes clear who you want to make your healthcare decisions if you can’t make them yourself. A Living Will or Advance Directive lets healthcare providers and your family know what you want to happen should you be at an end-of-life situation. Your healthcare directive can then let the doctors know which, if any, method to try and keep you alive including CPR, ventilator use, artificial nutrients, and comfort care.
Additionally, a HIPAA Authorization will allow people you want to be involved in your healthcare to have the right to talk to your healthcare providers. Without these documents, decisions about your medical treatment may be made by the doctor or might involve petitioning the court for a guardianship—an expensive and cumbersome process.
As the coronavirus continues to spread, it’s important to put measures in place to create peace of mind in the event you were to get the virus.
4. Do You Need a Living Trust?
A living trust is a legal arrangement that you create during your lifetime (like a will), but instead, you specify exactly the way you want your estate handled while you are still alive. A living trust might be used for people who have complex financial situations and more than one beneficiary.
When you die, the appointed trustee carries out your instructions without having to go through the legal process of probate. A living trust might be more effective than a will in carrying out the transfer of assets according to your wishes.
By transferring your assets to a living trust, your family can avoid the court-supervised probate process, which can be costly and time-consuming. A living trust can also help provide for the care, support, and education of your children by turning over trust assets to them at an age chosen by you.
5. Organize and Store Documents Securely
Once your estate plan is in place, it’s important to prepare your beneficiaries. You’ll want to make them aware of what will happen after your passing and who may expect to receive assets. Let the people named in your documents know they’ve been included, so they are aware of their responsibilities, and provide them with an explanation of the role they may play so they prepare.
Some may consider writing a letter of instruction that will provide the information your heirs need to know. The letter of instruction generally includes information such as where to find your estate documents, your burial wishes, how to complete daily tasks, and more.
Your careful work won’t help them unless they know where to find important papers, and what to do with them when the time comes.
When it comes to storing your estate planning documents, make sure they’re stored somewhere that’s both safe and easily accessible for those who need them. A fire and water-proof safe can help protect the documents, but it’s worth making sure someone you trust has the combination to access them should an emergency arise.
You may also want to consider a secure online document storage provider. Several site options are encrypted for safety, and can help you organize and store important documents alongside passwords, financial-account information and the names of your advisers. One storage option to avoid is a safe deposit box at the bank. Deposit boxes can be difficult to access by anyone not listed as an account owner and in some cases may even require a court order to access.
Getting Started on Your Estate Plan
Although estate planning can be difficult and unpleasant, it’s a necessary step that can help provide peace of mind to you and your family, especially during these unprecedented times. Due to the complexities involved, you may need some help hashing it out—that’s not uncommon. Estate planning is not as basic as it looks.
Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.
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