Anita Eaves and her husband, Clark, draped beach towels over the chairs at their attorney’s office, she remembers. They peered over their masks through protective goggles at their documents and signed with gloved hands.
They had started their will 10 months ago, but COVID-19 was the motivating factor that pushed them to finally finish it on April 6. With both of them being seniors and Anita having diabetes, they felt the urgency.
"You get frozen or paralyzed with decisions and do nothing," she said. “Then you get in a situation like this and say, 'Oh, OK, it’s time. We’ve got to make these decisions.'"
The Eaveses aren’t alone. The demand for wills and other estate planning documents has surged across Arizona and the rest of the U.S., according to Arizona attorneys and data from online estate planning platforms. A DIY online platform, Gentreo, reports the number of people scrambling to have wills and other documents made in Arizona more than tripled in March.
"You’ve usually got more fun things to do than sit and think about this topic," said James Ryan, the Eaves' attorney and a partner of Frazer Ryan Goldberg & Arnold. "This pandemic has put everyone squarely facing the reality that they could be gone in a couple of weeks if they contract this invisible enemy."
The demand in Arizona may soon increase even more. On April 8, Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order that makes it legal for estate planning documents to be notarized remotely using audiovisual technology and electronic signatures. Previously, Arizona, one of many states that have moved quickly to permit remote notaries, was set to allow the change beginning July 1, but his order moved that up.
A notary helps prevent fraud by “notarizing,” or verifying the signatures of the will-maker and the two required witnesses. While Arizona doesn’t require that wills be notarized, doing so speeds up and cuts the cost of the legal process that starts when the will-maker dies.
Many attorneys think COVID-19 could be the turning point in states permanently allowing remote notarizing of such documents.
The surge in estate planning — deciding what happens to you and your assets if you’re incapacitated or die — forced law firms to get creative with signing ceremonies before Ducey allowed remote notaries. Gathering the will-maker, two witnesses, and a notary in a room isn’t exactly practicing social distancing. And those who are at higher risk of contracting the virus may be the ones who most need a will and other documents.
Robert Fleming, a partner of Fleming & Curti, said he started noticing an increase in business in the second week of March. For certain clients, he handed sanitized clipboards through their car windows and didn’t mail them the final documents for 72 hours — the amount of time some studies show the virus can survive on surfaces.
"We were prepared to do signings through people’s living room windows," he said.
Four Arizona attorneys said it’s not just the possibility of death that’s causing the uptick in estate planning. With many businesses closed or limiting operations and people sheltering at home, it’s harder to procrastinate.
Before the pandemic, preparing a will was not at the top of many peoples’ lists.
Nearly half of Americans age 55 and older don’t have a will, according to a 2019 study from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave that surveyed more than 3,000 respondents in the U.S. over 18, with particular focus on those 55 and older. And only 18% of respondents had the three essential estate planning documents: a will, a living will, and powers of attorney.
While attorneys may not track data, online estate planning platforms do.
Renee Fry, the CEO of Gentreo, a digital estate-planning platform, said the number of Arizona residents submitting wills jumped from 39 people in February to 123 in March. According to Fry, the number of customers across the U.S. also tripled.
“It’s incredible, the growth,” she said, noting that some of it might be due to recent press about the surge in COVID-19-motivated will-writing.
Online estate planning is one way Americans are cutting costs and time. Hiring a lawyer to prepare your estate documents can cost between $1,000 and $4,000 and takes three to four weeks. For $50 a year, Gentreo offers a suite of documents that you can do on your own time and easily share with family members.
Fry says the majority of Gentreo’s growth is from its Essential Employee Discount for frontline workers of the pandemic, including health care professionals and grocery store assistants.
"People did not really recognize the need before," she said. "They would say, 'Oh, I will get around to it.' Now people are saying, 'I will do it.'"
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says older adults are at a higher risk for contracting the coronavirus. Eight out of 10 deaths reported in the U.S. have been for adults 65 years and older, according to the CDC. In Arizona, more than two thirds of deaths have been of people 65 and older.
But older adults are not the only people who have started their wills during the pandemic. Fry said the age group that’s the most active on their platform right now are those between 40 and 60 years old.
Another online estate planning platform, FreeWill, was founded by Stanford students to let users create a will for free. The Co-CEO Jennifer Xia Spradling said that the number of people writing wills through their platform has doubled in the last month and reached over 12,000 nationwide.
Spradling said many people between 30 and 40 are starting the estate planning process and attributed it to their need to protect their minor children by naming a guardian in their will.
Wills, and what else?
Estate planning covers what happens if you become incapacitated and what happens if you die. A will or trust determines what happens to your assets if you die, while powers of attorney (POA) documents protect you and your assets if you’re incapacitated.
A health care POA appoints someone to make medical decisions for you, while a financial POA appoints someone to make decisions about your assets.
“Thinking ‘what's going to happen if I die’ is scary to a lot of people. But it's not really the point,” said Fleming. “The real question is, ‘What's going to happen if you become incapacitated?’”
A living will — a written statement of what you want to happen to you if you become incapacitated — is another option for health care decisions. Anita Eaves said this should be a priority in the COVID-19 era.
"I don’t want to have to make that decision for Clark at a critical moment,” she said. “I’m glad those decisions are already made. And I don’t want our children to have to make those decisions either.”
Many clients are now appointing a pet POA. Gentreo says this is its most popular document — something that’s not hard to believe considering the U.S. Census Bureau found that 49% of American households have a pet.
“Even in these times, people care so much about their pets; it’s incredible,” Fry said.
While these documents require hard decisions, going through them makes you realize the challenges your family members would face without them, Anita said.
“You just feel confident after this that you’ve put a good process in place that will support your family members during a difficult period of loss,” she said. “At least we can make the business part of it easy.”
A greater surge ahead
While there’s been an uptick in estate planning in Arizona, attorneys should be seeing an even greater surge, said Caleb S. Lihn, founder and partner of Taylor & Lihn, PLLC. He thinks the real surge will come as the state gets closer to its peak cases. In the northeast, his colleagues have seen a more significant surge.
“There is an increase in demand once the fear sets in,” Lihn said. “And so I think here, for a lot of people, it hasn’t hit them yet.”
Without the virus, Eaves said she isn’t sure when they would have finished their estate planning.
“I’d like to tell you that we would have done it, but we’ve been married for 48 years and hadn’t done it yet,” she said.
This article was prepared by students in an Investigative Reporting course at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Contact the reporters at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.