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Estate Planning During a Pandemic

Estate Planning During a Pandemic

  • April 7, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant change throughout the world. One of the changes we are seeing is a significant increase in people wanting to put a plan in place to care for themselves and those they love.

Attorneys Sarah Kons and Peter Harbach joined WHBY’s Josh Dukelow to discuss how social distancing has changed the way we work with clients, and why people are so motivated now to get their plans in place. Catch the discussion here.

Josh: You know, I never thought talking about Estate Planning would be a welcome distraction and escape from the news of the day. But this morning, I so, so welcome and am glad to have, with us, on the Settlers Bank phone line, Sarah Kons and Peter Harbach from Hooper Law Office. Sarah, good morning.

Sarah: Good morning.

Josh: And Peter, thanks so much for joining us today.

Peter: Good morning, Josh.

Josh: So I am thrilled to have you guys with us, and I can't tell you how many times I have thought about the need for estate planning and the peace of mind that people get from having their estate plan in place just in the last few weeks.

And we're going to get to, in the next segment, how the global pandemic has motivated people into thinking about planning for their future. But before we get to that, I want to ask you to talk a little bit to our listeners about how social distancing guidelines are changing the way you work with your clients at Hooper Law Office.

Sarah: It definitely has.

Josh: Sarah, I'm sorry. Go right ahead.

Sarah: It's definitely been a unique issue that we've had to deal with at the office. It's not something that we've dealt with before. So we've gotten a bit creative in how we're doing it. Unfortunately, with the type of documents that we do, there's just not really a lot of options that we have for remote witnessing or even remote notarizing or electronic signatures. They just don't apply to a majority of the documents that we do.

So in order to make sure that our clients are safe and our office is safe, we've had to create some methods for signing that removes human contact. And that's basically what we've done at our office. We've a few different locations around the office that allow people to come in part way to the building and allow the witnessing to happen through windows, which is a little odd. But it's definitely worth it for the safety of everybody.

Josh: Yeah, definitely. And while it may seem unusual, it's certainly something you've never had to do before. Peter, how does it seem to be working? Are these new procedures allowing you to keep moving forward with developing plans for your clients?

Peter: Yeah. I've been encouraged by our experience over the last couple of weeks. It seems to actually work fairly well. As an exempt business, we're still operating, but we're not having any face-to-face meetings. Doing everything either via webcam or phone calls, and then, as Sarah said, because none of the remote notarization laws apply to Estate Planning documents, we're having them come in and view it through the window. We just have to be creative in making sure that people understand the documents prior to coming in to sign them, because nobody wants to sit and talk through a window for an hour to get an explanation. So we do that stuff ahead of time and then have the actual signatures as short as possible with the least amount of contact.

Josh: Yeah. Well, that's a good point, Peter. So much of the work that you do, I know when I was making my plan, a lot of the work is conversation. It's talking, it's asking questions and getting answers and thinking through questions people may have never thought of before. So now, you're forced to do that either on the phone or in a video conference rather than in person in a little conference room.

Of course, that's necessary right now. But I'd imagine that does make it a little more difficult to really get folks in the right mindset, to have them be thinking the way that they normally would in an in-person meeting.

Peter: Yeah. It's a little challenging. But frankly, it's worked smoother than I anticipated. So I wouldn't want to encourage anybody who thinks, "Oh, I don't have anything in place and I'm worried about this. I'd better just wait until the pandemic's over." Everything that we are able to create is still doable, because the real value in the estate plan is, frankly, the conversation and the working through the issues.

Josh: And part of your work, as well, in addition to working directly with clients, Sarah, is just the education that you do[...] helping folks understand the issues at play with Estate Planning. You normally offer free monthly Estate Planning seminars. You're still doing that this month, but now you've had to shift it online. Another thing that's new for how you're doing your work. How is that working? And explain to folks how they will join this month's seminar.

Sarah: Yeah. It's actually been an interesting process. Rather than the in-person presentations that we do, we're, like you said, doing everything web based. We're also shortening the sessions and doing them a bit more frequently in order to account for[...] people tend to have a longer attention span when they go somewhere in person to observe a presentation than when they're watching something online. So we've shortened some of the segments, and we're going to be doing them web based, like I mentioned, and it's going to be live. So hopefully, we're going to get a lot of participation.

One of the things that we find especially valuable about the presentations are the interactions and the questions that we get from the audience. So we're trying to replicate that in some of the presenting that we're doing online. So we're hoping that we're going to get participation that way as well.

A lot of Estate Planning education is story based, really. I mean, the concepts that we go through and the legalese that kind of has to be part of it, right, that aspect is still there. But a lot of the explanation happens with stories. And we're hoping that that's going to translate well to a different type of medium.

Josh: Well, you've certainly made it easy for folks to get signed up if they go to EstatePlanningLive.com. It takes them right to the event page where they can select a date. They can get a preview of what they're going to expect in the seminar. And then on that selected date button, it shows all of the different dates and times when this is available. They can sign up to attend one of those that works best for their schedule.

So EstatePlanningLive.com gives you all of the information there, gets you signed up, and that's where you'll get the link to actually view and participate in the Estate Planning seminar. The next one coming up on Tuesday, the 14th. So that's next week at noon. Again, more details and get yourself signed up at EstatePlanningLive.com.

I know I've been thinking about this, just how lucky and happy I am to have my estate plan in order. But I suspect there's a lot of folks out there who've been meaning to get around to this for a while, and suddenly a global pandemic makes them feel like this is probably the right time. When we come back, we're going to ask Sarah Kons and Peter Harbach from Hooper Law Office to talk about the urgent discovery that some people have had recently about getting their estate plan in place and how they can help you get that done here now even in these social distancing rubrics that are in place. We'll talk more about the need for Estate Planning and how it's getting done in the age of COVID-19 when we continue our conversation with Sarah Kons and Peter Harbach from Hooper Law Office right after this when Fresh Take continues on WHBY.

Josh: Real local radio helping you prioritize what's most important. And we're talking with Sarah Kons and Peter Harbach from Hooper Law Office about the importance of Estate Planning during this global pandemic.

And Sarah, I'll start with you with this first question. Nothing gets us thinking about mortality like a pandemic. Have you seen a surge in interest from new clients[...] people who have finally decided to get started in making their estate plan?

Sarah: There has been a fair amount of people that have suddenly felt more motivated, I think, to look into Estate Planning, determine, "What does this actually mean for me?" A lot of reviews of documents[...] "Is what I have sufficient for what I need? How outdated is what I have?" A lot of questions about how things will actually operate.

There's also been quite a bit of discussion about things like Power of Attorney documents. Because like the folks that are overseas and are struggling to get home or even people that are around the country that can't quite make it back to their homes, being able to have somebody else that is capable of kind of running your life if you're not there to do so. So making sure that it's not just disability that people might face or health issues that cause them to not have an ability to participate in their life or pay their bills, file their taxes. You know, all of this happened right over tax season, so how are people going to be able to file taxes and things like that?

Sometimes, the practicalities are really more the issue, and I think this whole pandemic has really highlighted that. If you are not there to handle things like bill paying and tax filing, do you have anybody that's authorized to do so in your absence? So there's been a lot of focus on that from people too.

Josh: Now, you mentioned Power of Attorney  documents there, and there may be folks out there who are like, "Oh, I've got a Power of Attorney document written up." But it's not safe to assume they're all the same? Is that right, Sarah? Not all Power of Attorney  documents are the same?

Sarah: That's absolutely true. I've reviewed many, many different types of Power of Attorney  documents. And there are some important questions to ask. Things like when is an agent authorized to act? A fair amount of Power of Attorney  documents require that a person be declared incapacitated by a doctor before an agent can step in to act. For a lot of married couples, this is even applicable to your spouse.

So if you want them to be able to step in at your request rather than add a declaration of incapacity, you have to make sure that you understand what your document actually requires for that to happen.

There's also a wide variety and difference in the powers that are authorized. Banks and financial institutions, part of what they spend a lot of time[...] especially over the past 10 years[...] doing is trying to protect you from things like identity theft or, for the more vulnerable population, from manipulation, things like that. They are very careful what they allow agents to do. So you have to ensure that the powers you've laid out in your Power of Attorney document actually address all of the things that are relevant to you.

Is there an ability to deal with property if you own land, especially in multiple states? Do you have a retirement account? If so, is there some sort of authority to deal with retirement accounts contained within your document? How expansive are the powers?

Now the broad range of[...] "My agent can just do whatever they need to. Anything dealing with money or property, they can do anything they have to," that is very difficult to have honored later by any one financial institution. They want to know specifically what it is that the agent is allowed to do on your behalf. So you have to make sure that you're very clear in that document. And a large majority of the ones that I see when people bring them in for reviews are just not real specific on what the agent can do.

So the statutory state form is a good example. There are a lot of gaps in there that you want to make sure that you explain what exactly is it that you want your agent to be able to do for you before you feel like you can safely rely on that document to be useful later.

Josh: We're talking with Sarah Kons and Peter Harbach from Hooper Law office about Estate Planning during COVID-19. And Peter, in addition to documents and powers of attorney, that thing Sarah was talking about, another issue you help your clients with is preparing to pay for long-term care or the need for skilled nursing assistance, things like that. How is that changing during this COVID-19 pandemic?

Peter: Sure. I mean, nursing homes are absolutely probably the highest risk group that can potentially be affected by the pandemic. I mean, I believe the state of Washington had the first kind of large group of people passing away from COVID-19 in a nursing home. And so that really brings to mind how vulnerable that population is. So there's significant restrictions in being able to actually see face-to-face anybody in a nursing home these days.

So the planning, again, the going back to virtual and phone calls and things like that. But this is, again, where powers of attorney can be critical, because having agents who are able to help us do things, especially around nursing home costs and dealing with people who are in a nursing home. Because if they don't have these things prepared ahead of time, it's very difficult to have the sort of support network that the person needs[...] somebody who is able to travel and get things done for them.

Josh: And so one of the specific steps in the process of planning for long-term care can sometimes be actually touring and selecting the facilities that you hope to have your loved one placed at when the time is necessary, and right now without visiting facilities, that really complicates that whole process, doesn't it?

Sarah: It does.

Peter: Yeah, it really does. Obviously, you can do some research online and everything, but being able to go in the facilities is much more limited, much more challenging to be able to select one. So I would suggest that people probably contact a senior advisor, a geriatric care manager whose job it is to really understand the different facilities in the area and give recommendations about, "Okay, there's 100 facilities. Maybe you just want to focus on these one or two," because it's so challenging to be able to check them out right now.

Josh: Sarah, your thoughts on that.

Sarah: I know that a couple of the local senior advisors, they have recorded, like, walk-through, different facilities. And they've been using virtual tours to help people evaluate and select facilities. I know some facilities had been allowing people to come in if it was an urgent situation or an emergency, something like that. But for individuals that are trying to select a facility, that can be a really useful tool.

So I think they've really tried to find different methods of kind of mimicking that tour feeling and being able to see what it looks like inside and that kind of thing. So looking at websites is helpful. But yeah, senior advisors and geriatric care managers can be especially helpful during a time like this. They have more resources available to them.

Josh: Yeah. And that's the key here is working with people who have knowledge and experience in these areas where the rest of us are not as knowledgeable.

With just a couple of minutes left, talk about access to the courts and how that is influencing the creation of estate plans and also the execution. Sarah?

Sarah: Well there's one thing that's happened recently that's been somewhat fruitive when if comes to this. One of the main court actions that we deal with on a regular basis in Estate Planning and Elder Law is the probate system. So the method of getting property from deceased individuals to their heirs. And not to long before this all started, Wisconsin actually moved to an entirely electronic version form of this. So the probate system has actually been sort of ahead of the game when it comes to this.

So that aspect of what we do has been somewhat unimpacted. There is, I think, difficulty in getting things filed under something. There are some things that still have to be filed[...] hard copies[...] like the original will of the person. So trying to get those documents filed and then initiating some of these actions has definitely been a struggle for a lot of people. A majority of Estate Planning and Elder Law doesn't happen through the court system. It's more about preparing for that prior to that actually happening.

But fortunately, probate was actually ahead of the curve in this instance, and it's really made it a lot easier for people to continue administering estates even through the pandemic.

Josh: I'm grateful to hear that, that the court process isn't disrupting this as it is in some other areas of the law. We are all out of time, but I really appreciate the time you took to join us today, Sarah Kons and Peter Harbach from Hooper Law Office.

For folks that are interested in signing up for the next free Estate Planning seminar, they're being done via video these days. So you've got to go online. EstatePlanningLive.com. Or call the attorneys at (920) 250-9959. Sarah, Peter, thank you so much for your time today.

Peter: Thanks, Josh.

Sarah: It's always a pleasure, Josh. Thank you.

Josh: Thank you both so much.

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