By Dennis Healy
Rarely do events take place that so completely disrupt the normal routines of people around the world as has the coronavirus. As we collectively stepped up to stem its spread, we embraced new concepts like ‘shelter in place’ and ‘social distancing.’ Much of our nation’s workforce found themselves adjusting to working from home – while at the same time, helping children stay on track with schoolwork and ensuring that older loved ones are well cared for. Daunting challenges.
Growing concerns about health and finances have prompted many to get their houses in order, particularly when it comes to estate planning. In the midst of this uncertainty, attorneys and financial advisors have seen a surge in requests for help with wills and other legal documents. For example, Ann-Margaret Carozza, an estate planning and asset protection attorney based in New York, said in an ABC News Report that in late March and early April, she’s seen an “approximately 50 percent increase in inquiries about ‘all estate planning aspects,’ including healthcare-advanced directives.”
Similarly, people are turning to online solutions for help. Here at ARAG, for example, we’ve seen a 70% jump in overall usage of DIY Docs®, a document creation tool, from March to April. In addition to wills, downloads of health care power of attorney, HIPAA authorizations and elder care arrangements have all nearly doubled over this period last year. These state-specific, legally valid documents have long been available to legal plan members as estate planning resources, so this growth is significant.
What does this mean for employers? It’s important to recognize that this could be a new priority for many employees. According to a study by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, nearly half of Americans over 55 don’t yet have a will or estate plan in place. And even those who do are newly incented to update their legal documents to better reflect their current family and financial situations. Offering financial planning and legal benefits that make it easier for employees to feel better prepared in times of crisis may be a key consideration going forward.
The following outlines some of the essential components of estate planning that employees should understand as they strive to protect their families, future and finances.
Understanding estate planning essentials
Despite the name, ‘estate planning’ is not the purview of the older and wealthy—a long-held misconception. Rather, it’s a necessary means to protect family assets, provide for loved ones and guide healthcare decisions. Arguably, it’s even more important for those with young children.
Not surprisingly in the COVID-19 era, healthcare documentation that specifies who can make medical and financial decisions in the event they cannot speak for themselves is top of mind for many. These typically include:
- HIPAA Authorization gives someone the authority to review and discuss health information with your healthcare providers.
- Healthcare power of attorney gives a person you trust the ability to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to do so.
- Durable power of attorney lets you delegate your right to make legal and financial decisions to someone else upon your incapacitation. This can relate to matters around real estate, taxes, banking and finances.
- Living will expresses your directions about life-sustaining treatments. If you are capable of making a healthcare decision, your decisions will override what’s in the living will.
Most synonymous with estate planning are wills and trusts. While contemplating our mortality is unpleasant at best, having this legal documentation is crucial to ensure your wishes are executed when it comes to major decisions, like who will care for your children, what will happen to your pets, and how will your assets be distributed or managed. These are not decisions most people would prefer to leave to the state via the probate court system.
In creating a will, the officers you assign—whether an executor, guardian, or trustee—will have a fiduciary responsibility to implement your directives.
A trust can also be a critical part of an estate plan, used instead of a will or in combination with it. Its flexibility allows people with varying income levels to use trusts to suit their particular needs. Like a will, this document specifies who receives the benefits of the trust assets; who will manage those assets; and what the terms are for managing and distributing those assets.
The biggest difference between trusts and wills is that with a trust, a private document, heirs avoid the often time-consuming and expensive legal probate process of transferring property out of your name and into the name of your beneficiaries. Other than things like retirement plan assets and life insurance policies, which have specific beneficiary designations, everything else in your name would go through probate.
The trust transfers ownership of any accounts or other assets in that trust directly to whomever is named the beneficiaries of the trust, making probate unnecessary. This also means heirs will generally be able to access assets in a trust more quickly than assets transferred through a will.
Executing your plans
Getting these documents developed and executed before stay-at-home directives are lifted can prove challenging. Having access to DIY templates is a great way to start thinking through your wishes, but it’s prudent to consult an attorney or financial planner to help determine which structure is best suited to your needs and to help you navigate state laws.
For example, to ensure these documents are legally valid typically requires signing in the presence of witnesses and having the documents notarized—difficult with social distancing measures in place. Again, the stance on electronic signatures and remote online notarization varies by state—insights your attorney can provide. In addition, the National Notary Association (NNA) identifies which states offer permanent or temporary remote online notarization here.
Before meeting with your attorney, be sure to gather the details of all property and assets that make up your estate as well as the proper names and personal information for those who are being designated as agents or beneficiaries. Think through issues like:
- Do my appointees have the skills, time and commitment to perform their role?
- Do I trust this person to be discreet with my healthcare information and to follow my plans, regardless of their personal beliefs?
- Is the information and are the appointees consistent across my legal documents?
While the process may feel overwhelming, the impact of not having these important documents can be long lasting, costly and emotionally draining for loved ones. For example, without a will in place, the courts will determine your children’s guardian and how your assets will be distributed. Or lacking a power of attorney for an aging parent could preclude you from making important medical or financial decisions on their behalf—making a stressful situation worse.
Your attorney can guide you through the process to ensure that you create the legacy you want.
Addressing the ‘new normal’
Clearly, this time of uncertainty has raised awareness regarding the need for estate planning—and has compelled many to take proactive steps to plan for the future. Employers can make this process easier for their workforce by providing them access to voluntary benefits like financial planning and education along with affordable legal counsel and resources, like those offered by legal plans.
As we re-open the country and return to businesses, schools and what is likely to be a ‘new normal’, let’s go forward with a renewed sense of preparedness and hope.
Dennis Healy is a member of the ARAG® executive team. Dennis is a passionate advocate for legal insurance because he has seen firsthand how it helps people receive the protection and legal help they need. He has nearly 30 years of insurance industry experience, with a primary focus on the sale of group voluntary benefit products to employer groups of all sizes through the broker and consultant community. Dennis can be reached at Dennis.Healy@ARAGlegal.com.