Estate Planning in a Pandemic
By Dawn R. Levine, Guest Contributor
Nothing gets you thinking of your own mortality like being trapped at home with your own thoughts, with lots of free time and a disease on a rampage around the globe. The Pandemic has changed lots of things, to be sure. It should come as no surprise that it has also changed the people seeking estate planning in several ways. First, more people than ever aren’t just thinking about it but, rather they are acting on it as well. Estate planners have seen a sharp uptick in people who want to do planning. At our firm, the volume of estate planning clients contacting us was up 100% from the same period last year. It should be noted that, historically, at this time of year, many of the people we are doing planning for are contemplating getting on a plane (pre-travel planning). This year the numbers did not include any of that for obvious reasons, meaning that an even greater percentage of these clients were motivated by fear of the Pandemic or by all the free time caused by the Pandemic. These clients are not just different from the norm because of their motivations though. A second way these clients differ is in how they view the concepts. For many people who engage in planning for incapacity or death, those concepts are an abstraction. You often hear phrases like “if I die” I want this or that. It isn’t quite real in their minds. The clients who are coming forward right now are much more realistic about the prospects of death and incapacity in their future. They have a thoughtfulness and sincerity about the process that you often see in those who have just received a troubling medical diagnosis. It isn’t just the clients who have changed though. The market to serve them has changed also.
The estate planning market has expanded dramatically due to the Pandemic in several ways, some for the better and some for the worse. One good change has been the adaptation to technology to produce a more efficient process. Many clients and attorneys have, by necessity, let go of the traditional face-to-face estate planning consultation. Zoom calls along with regular calls and email consultations have become the norm. Clients are seeing the value of this. They can have their wishes heard by a professional without taking a huge bite out of their day to travel to the attorney’s office. A second favorable change is the scrutiny of some of the signing formalities in estate planning. Virtual notaries are now being looked at as a promising option rather than a threat to the attorney’s practice. As good as those changes are, some of the changes in the market for estate planning have not been so great. Where there is this much opportunity, you are sure to see it abused. Offerings that have been inspired by the Pandemic are not always well done. Ads for docs-in-a-box abound, downloadable, fill-in-the-blank Wills and Trusts. I may see more than my share of these ads because key words like estate planning appear in my profile frequently. However, I think everyone on social media is seeing them to some extent. Many of these are under company names that didn’t seem to exist a year ago. Who knows if they will still be here when the Pandemic has subsided. In addition to these new companies, many well-known, household names are now purporting to deliver estate planning packages (without the need for an expensive attorney, of course.) Suze Orman, I am looking at you. It doesn’t end there, either. The Pandemic threw lots of attorneys out of work. Criminal law attorneys have probably been the hardest hit. Without functioning courts, they have no work. Many of them have started dabbling in estate planning to keep their bills paid. The common theme in all of these negative developments is documents produced like a commodity without the application of any experience. Unfortunately, the clients don’t know there is an issue with their documents. No one will know until these documents need to be used, once the client is deceased or incapacitated and it is too late to fix anything. Then, it will be the probate litigation attorneys who will be busy.
Dawn R. Levine is an attorney and managing partner of Georgia Wills, Trusts, and Probate Firm, LLC. She had several life-changing experiences that led her to a passionate focus on Estate Planning and Probate. She services the full economic spectrum from basic Wills, Revocable Living Trusts to complex tax planning and charitable giving. She finds it especially rewarding to assist with charitable giving and families with young children. A significant portion of her practice is devoted to business formation and succession. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with her son, husband, and dogs. She is a graduate of the Cobb County Master Gardener program. She enjoys any projects that take her to Home Depot.