Estate Planning Need Not Wait

THE FACTS: For months now I have been meaning to schedule an appointment with an estate planning attorney to discuss my wishes with respect to a will, healthcare proxy and power of attorney. I have a lot of questions and really need some guidance as to what I should do and how I can best ensure that my wishes will be honored. Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, I have been losing sleep over the fact that I do not have an estate plan in place. 

THE QUESTION: Now that law offices are closed and social distancing is a reality, is there anything I can do to move my estate planning process along? 

THE ANSWER: While estate planning is extremely important, at this point in time it is more important that you do your part to avoid the spread of the virus. I urge you to stay at home to the extent possible and, if you do leave the house, to be sure to wipe down frequently used surfaces, wash your hands often and follow the guidelines set by the government for social distancing. 

That being said, while you are at home, you can certainly give some thought to your estate plan and gather the information that will be needed in order for your estate planning documents to be prepared. Although I am not in my office on a regular basis, I am continuing to work with both current and new clients by phone and email. 

While personal contact may not be an option at this time, a great deal can be accomplished remotely and I welcome the opportunity to discuss with you your concerns and wishes. Also, it should be noted that the legislators in Albany and the New York State Bar Association are considering changes to the law that would allow for remote execution and witnessing of estate planning documents during this crisis. 

In the meantime, you should give some thought to who you want to name as your agent or agents in your advanced directives such as your power of attorney and healthcare proxy. It is a good idea to ask the people you are thinking of naming as your agents whether they are comfortable with acting in that capacity. Some people may not want to or may not feel they are capable of taking on the responsibility of handling your affairs or making end of life decisions on your behalf. 

While it is important for any agent that you name to know what your wishes are, it is absolutely critical that the person you name as your healthcare proxy be fully aware of the circumstances, if any, under which you may want certain types of treatments and/or procedures to be withheld.

Once you’ve decided on who you want to name as your agents and have discussed with those people your wishes, you should be sure you have the information such as the agents’ phone numbers and addresses that will be needed to prepare your advanced directives. 

In terms of your will, you should give some thought to what assets you have and what assets will pass under your will. Only assets owned by you individually as opposed to assets that are owned jointly, held in trust or subject to a beneficiary designation form will pass pursuant to your will. These assets are called probate assets. 

Once you have a handle on what assets are probate assets and what assets will pass outside your will, you can think about who the beneficiaries of your estate will be and if and how you want the assets divided. You should consider what will happen if a beneficiary predeceases you and whether you want assets to be distributed upon your death or held in trust for future distribution. In addition to how your probate assets will be distributed, think about who will handle your estate. At a minimum, you need to name an executor and a successor executor.

Although making decisions about who will serve as your agents and executor, what your wishes are with respect to end of life care and how your assets will be distributed may seem overwhelming, as I mentioned before, I am available by phone and via email to discuss with you the estate planning process and your unique circumstances. 

Once we have developed a plan, I will send you drafts of your estate planning documents for review. Hopefully by then a procedure will have been worked out for the remote execution and witnessing of your estate planning documents. If not, at least you will be ready to execute your documents in the presence of witnesses as soon as the restrictions that are currently in place are lifted.

In the meantime, I hope that the coronavirus crisis does not cause you or your loved ones undue stress or inconvenience and that you stay well. I look forward to hearing from you. 

This article first appeared the Times Beacon Newspapers in April, 2020.

Linda M. Toga, Esq provides legal services in the areas of estate planning and administration, real estate, small business services and litigation. She is available for email and phone consultations. Call 631-444-5605 or email Ms. Toga at Linda@LMTOGALAW.com. She will respond to messages and emails as quickly as possible. 

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