In recent weeks, I have been posting about how estate planning has increased in urgency as a result of the coronavirus. I've talked about why you need an estate plan, why now, and how to start having these important conversations with your loved ones. Each time I write about beginning the process, I close with an additional piece of information: all estate planning work can be completed virtually. This week, I got to wondering if people actually know what that means. So, here we go. A peek inside what virtual estate planning really looks like.
If you have been doing some research into virtual estate planning, you may have some questions right off the bat: how is it possible to prepare an estate plan without going to the bank, to your safety deposit box, to your insurance agency, and to your attorney's office? Isn't it necessary to bring original documents to your attorney to execute? How can a Will be executed without witnesses present? What about a Notary? Don't worry. We will dive into all of these questions and more.
Yes, You Can Prepare a Comprehensive Estate Plan Without Leaving Your Home
At The Tyra Law Firm, our focus is always on making estate planning convenient and easy for our clients. Even when we are not under a stay at home order, we utilize a variety of tools to bring estate planning to you. One of these is our virtual estate planning process.
So, how does it work? First, you call. In case you can't find it elsewhere, our office number is (301) 315-0811. You call and have a brief chat with yours truly about your estate planning needs. Then, I will send you a link to my online calendar. You can pick a date and time that work for you, and I'll send you a link to a Zoom meeting as well as an email containing some overview information about estate planning, as well as our planning questionnaire. Some people get a little intimidated by the questionnaire, but it's really not as scary as it seems. It is simply a starting point for me to learn a little more about you, your family, your assets, and your goals. Ballpark figures are ok! You don't need to do hours of research to fill out the questionnaire perfectly. It's more of a jumping off point. Once you've completed the questionnaire, you send it back to me.
On the appointed meeting day, we both connect to Zoom. This gives us a chance to get to know one another, walk through your questionnaire, and discuss your estate planning options. Remember, a comprehensive estate plan isn't just a Will. It also includes an Advance Healthcare Directive, any Powers of Attorney required, and, if necessary, a Trust. At The Tyra Law Firm, our goal is never to up-sell or convince you to purchase estate planning tools that you don't need. Instead, we fully appraise you of all of your options and then make our best recommendation, based on your current circumstances and goals. Of course, the final decision is up to you.
Once you have chosen your estate planning path, I will walk you through my engagement letter, which is the simple agreement that states that you would like to hire me to prepare your estate plan. Just like most things in the estate planning process, this engagement letter can be completed virtually. I'll send you an electronic copy, and you can sign and pay from the comfort of your home.
Then, my work begins. I will prepare your estate plan in accordance with your instructions. Throughout the process, I may reach out to you via email or telephone to clarify any questions and confirm any decisions. I do not need originals of any of your documents. Really, what I need is clear descriptions of your assets. If you can tell me the name of the bank or the brokerage firm or the insurance company that you use, we can get this done. What's great about this part of the process is that we can work together in direct communication. While I am drafting, feel free to ask me any and all questions. This is where we put “comprehensive” into comprehensive estate planning. I don't want to leave anything out.
Once I'm done with a draft, I'll send it to you for your review. We can go through it together, make changes, and answer questions. Then, when you are happy with your final documents, I will send you the final version, along with instructions for you to execute.
In Maryland, Execution is a Little Unclear
Now we've reached the point in the process where things become a tiny bit muddy. Up until now, the estate planning process has been entirely virtual, fully comprehensive, and — for The Tyra Law Firm — well within our office status quo. But, here's where coronavirus catapults us into uncharted territory. Under the current laws in the State of Maryland, it is not legal to fully execute an estate plan virtually. Laws like the Maryland Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (which allowed us to sign the engagement letter virtually) have specific exclusions for Wills. On March 30, 2020, Governor Hogan issued a state of emergency order permitting remote notary services, as well as extending the expiration dates on both driver's licenses and active notary commissions. While this will make notarizing a Will, Power of Attorney, or Trust easier, it doesn't solve the biggest problem: witnesses. In the State of Maryland, Wills must be executed by the signer (you) and two witnesses. Witnesses should be adults and not beneficiaries of the Will. Under state law, the witnesses must be in the presence of the signer to legally execute a Will. At this point, there is no state of emergency order that allows witnessing to be done virtually.
If you happen to live with two adult roommates who are not named in your Will, you're in luck! But, if you don't, what do we do? Does that mean we should put a hold on the whole endeavor? Certainly not. There are a couple of reasons why. First, at any point, the gaps in the current state of emergency could be filled in. Second, because even an unwitnessed Will may have some effect in probate court. Third, at some point, this emergency will pass, and your comprehensive, well-prepared Will can remain in place. Think about it: doesn't it make sense to put these documents in place, take the time to make sure they meet your goals and needs, and then do everything you can to make those documents legally enforceable? Then, when things change (either when the emergency orders change or when we are allowed to go out again), you will be ready to execute in a flash. You don't even need me, or any attorney, present. Just you, your witnesses, and your notary (who can even be there virtually!). We also don't know how courts will view this unique circumstance. It is very possible that a probate court will take these extenuating circumstances into consideration when giving weight to your un-executed Will.
It is also important to note that, in certain circumstances, such as emergencies, it might be necessary to legally execute a Will during this crisis. If required, there are ways that we can reduce the risk of infection while still meeting in person. A large conference room or outdoor location could be used to execute documents legally, while maintaining social distancing. We can also ensure all involved parties have appropriate personal protective equipment (such as gloves and masks) and that all documents and pens have been properly disinfected.
The Fact of the Matter is, We Need to Be Prepared
If all the ins and outs of estate planning in the current environment has you thinking, “Maybe I'll just wait until this all blows over,” remember why you started considering estate planning in the first place. Because it's necessary for you and your loved ones if something should happen to you. In these uncertain times, tomorrow is not guaranteed. We need to be prepared for anything.
To get started on your virtual estate planning journey, give The Tyra Law Firm a call. We are here with you every step of the way.