Lawyers in Short Supply

To say that the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and social distancing have changed our world is not much of an exaggeration. Even those who haven’t been directly affected by the pandemic have had their lives upended. People who have been sick, nursed a family member through their illness, or lost a loved one to it — well, their lives will never be the same.

Death, and our fear of it, can really put things in perspective. Many people have been taking advantage of this opportunity to work on putting their affairs in order, including making sure that their end-of-life planning is complete.

What does that entail for the average American? Is it possible to create a legally binding last will and testament on the internet? And how many of us are making the attempt? The fact is, more people are preparing for their future and securing the future of their children in anticipation of a worse case scenario. Here’s what you need to know:

The State of Our Estates

According to a survey conducted jointly by caregiving resource site and international research data and analytics group YouGov, only 40% of Americans had a will in 2019. Early figures from 2020 were similarly low, but that is changing, and how.

Not only that, but the number of adult Americans who have a will or another type of estate planning document saw a decrease of almost 25% in just three years, since 2017. That could be because of barriers to legal services, or simply to lack of know-how. Hispanics, in particular, are unlikely to have taken the necessary steps to distribute their property after their death. Fully 12% of them — up from just 4% in 2017 — say that they don’t even know how to go about getting a will.

Social Distancing and Estate Planning

With a potentially deadly disease raving not just our nation, but the global community, many people are realizing that their spouses, children, and other loved ones would be incredibly vulnerable if they, themselves, were to die during this pandemic.

As states began to issue stay-at-home orders, schools closed, and non-essential workers across the country got a crash course in Zoom, lots of folks began calling attorneys in their community. Unfortunately, many of them were already too late; by the time they made those initial inquiries, the lawyers’ appointment slots were filled.

Even the lucky people who were able to get an appointment with an estate planning legal professional found themselves in a bit of a pickle as social distancing demanded a six-foot separation when out in public. Much of the preliminary work of drafting a will can be done via telephone and internet, but unlike some legal records that can be signed electronically, in some states, wills require not just an-person signature to make the document valid, but two witnesses to be present as well.

This can be accomplished — conducting business through a window while making certain that everyone involved is maintaining that six-foot span, wearing masks and gloves, and otherwise exercising extreme caution — but it isn’t easy. Other states only ask for one witness, whereas in other jurisdictions you might be able to get away with signing online.

Lobbying for Change

Attorneys across the country are lobbying legislators with the hopes of having restrictions eased. After all, with the death toll in the U.S. rapidly nearing the 50K mark, a much higher percentage of Americans than ordinarily are going to be needing this legal service in the next several months. Given the fact that contested wills, estates in probate, and other challenges surrounding intestacy threaten to tie up courts and clog up the legal system, it’s a desperate measure that suits these desperate times.

What About Online Wills?

Are wills that you can create online, using templates, even valid? The answer is somewhat murky. Having a will drawn up by an attorney is always preferable, but there are some situations in which any will might be better than none. If an individual’s finances, as well as their marital and parental status, are fairly straightforward, creating a will online might work just fine. As things get more complicated, the odds of a DIY document holding up in court against contentious relatives determined to get their fair share drop precipitously.

Remember, too, that even if you make up your own will, whether scribbling it on a cocktail napkin like a scene from classic cinema or going to one of the many online legal document creation sites, you might still have to have it signed in person, depending on the state where you live. So the only thing you’re eliminating from the process is the attorney — the most important part, in many cases. Ideally, use an attorney referral service to find the best attorney for you.

Wrapping Up

If you do not have a last will and testament, if you are not legally married to your partner, or if your end of life planning isn’t yet locked down tight, you owe it to your family to do a little research. Find out what’s necessary in the state where you live, and what alternatives you have during the current coronavirus conditions. Then take whatever steps are called for, whether that means booking an appointment with an attorney or taking care of matters on your own, to shore up your assets and their distribution.