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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Your Digital Afterlife: Estate Planning in the Internet Age
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For a very long time, estate plans didn’t change much. Traditionally, they have been paper documents that spell out a person’s wishes regarding property, executorships’ responsibilities, funding of trusts, and so forth, that were spelled out in wills, trusts, powers of attorney, health-care proxies, and perhaps invoking the Homestead Act. (The Homestead Act is a document that can be added to your personal residence’s deed, to gain limited protection to the equity in your home). While all these documents still represent the foundation of a modern-day estate plan, the Internet has added a whole new dimension to the process.
Online banking, employer financial plans, investments, and even tax returns can now be accessed with the click of a mouse. While everyone enjoys the convenience of the Internet, big problems arise if a decedent hasn’t informed survivors about critical information such as URLs, passwords, and PINs.
I recently heard a story of a woman whose husband handled the finances for the family. Upon his death, she didn’t know anything about his stock options with his former employer. She subsequently lost over $19,000 because the options expired without her exercising them. I’m sure that $19,000 would have come in handy to pay the funeral expenses. Don’t let this situation happen to you. Make sure you store all pertinent information in a safe place and that your executor or heirs know where to find it.
Furthermore, with the popularity of social networking these days, have you ever thought about what happens to your online presence upon your death? Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter all have specific policies in dealing with this situation. Facebook allows friends and family members the option of either “memorializing” the profile or removing it entirely. Memorializing the profile allows it to be viewed by those whom the account holder had confirmed as “friends.” Friends may post on the deceased person’s wall, but can’t log into the account. Removing the profile entirely may only be done by an immediate family member. To learn more, go to Facebook’s website and search for “How Do I Report a Deceased User or an Account That Needs to be Memorialized?” Keep in mind that you will need proof of death, such as an obituary.
Twitter users can email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact them via fax at (415)-222-9958. They will need the deceased’s user name or a link to the account profile page. A link to an obituary or news article is acceptable as well. Twitter accounts can only be removed, not left as memorials.
You can contact LinkedIn via fax at (402)-715-4536 or via their website. A “Verification of Death Form” must be completed and submitted. You will need the account holder’s e-mail address, URL of their LinkedIn profile, date of death, and an official death notice.
Blog services’ policies vary from service provider to service provider, so check their policies for removing a deceased user’s accounts. Usually the blog’s URL and the URL to the login page with the username and password should be a good start.
All documents and information should be kept in a safe place and someone you trust should be aware of how to access the data upon your death or incapacitation. Preferably it should be stored electronically, encrypted, and with a redundant back-up in the event a disaster recovery is needed.
Here is a checklist of important items:
1. Professional advisor’s contact information
3. Insurance policies
4. Banking, savings, and investment statements
5. Property deeds
6. Retirement plan documents
7. Estate planning documents
8. Online presence information, i.e., user names and passwords
As you can see, in today’s digital age, this is not your grandparent’s estate plan. By taking some simple steps, however, you can make sure you, your family, and your assets are protected.
How to Manage Household Finances After Your Spouse Dies
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Few people want to consider what might happen after the death of a spouse, but it’s an inevitability that many of us will have to prepare for—and for widows or widowers who aren’t prepared, the period immediately after a spouse’s death can be a financial nightmare.
The New York Times has an in-depth guide to managing household finances after a spouse dies, starting with the advice to share as much financial information as possible before this even happens:
Susan Covell Alpert was crushed by grief when her 71-year-old husband, Larry, died of leukemia in 2008. Adding to her misery, a tidal wave of financial decisions and tasks demanded the new widow’s attention at a time when she could barely think straight.
Like many couples, Susan and Larry, who were married for 46 years, had divided the financial chores. Larry handled the investments, and Susan paid some bills. Though Ms. Alpert owned a business arranging travel incentives for large corporations, she was not prepared to manage the household’s financial affairs.
“I knew every stock, and I knew where everything was,” said Ms. Alpert, 78. “But I didn’t know what to do with it all.”
If you and your spouse also divide financial chores, make sure both of you understand not only the state of the household finances but also how to complete each other’s tasks. Consider creating a hard copy list of financial accounts, with login and password information where appropriate—and keep it updated. If you’re concerned about password security, you can deposit that list with your lawyer or with the executor of your will. (You do have a will, right?)
After the death of a spouse, the surviving widow or widower will be faced with myriad tasks, from arranging for the funeral to dealing with the deceased’s credit cards. The NYT suggests creating a prioritized to-do list:
Surviving spouses can alleviate some stress by attacking the to-do list in stages, [certified financial planner Alexandra Armstrong] said. At the top: Notify the Social Security Administration, call the life insurance company and pay important bills, such as those for utilities and property insurance premiums. If a husband was still working when he died, his widow should check with his employer for any unpaid salary, accrued vacation days and retirement plans. She also may be eligible for veterans’ benefits.
One of Ms. Alpert’s first moves was to name her two adult daughters as her agents for her financial and health care powers of attorney.
Read the full article to learn more about how to both prepare for and handle the financial tasks that arise after the death of a spouse—and if you have additional advice to share, please do.
We don’t like to talk about the end of our lives, but it’s something that is important to plan for, both for ourselves and for those we leave behind.
These days, estate planning includes not only who will inherit our worldly goods when we die, but also what will happen to our digital legacies. While the digital passwords of our lives may be needed by our heirs after our deaths, it’s not exactly practical to update our wills every time we add a new password.
New companies are springing up to help us make plans and gather all the information our heirs will need in one place. Not only do the services provide a digital value, they provide prompts to encourage us to think about issues we haven’t put in writing, such as what music we would like playing in our final hours.
“I can’t tell you how important it is to have all this information in one place,” says Abby Schneiderman, co-founder of Everplans.com, which started out as a content site and then grew into a planning platform after her brother’s death in a car crash in 2012. “It helps people get together all of the important information and documents the family needs in the event of an emergency or, even worse, a death.”
Everplans is one of several companies that allow you to create a digital repository of your wills, health care directives, funeral wishes, plans for your pet, desires for your Facebook page, what you’d like to see in your obituary, family photos and even your grandpa’s cherished spaghetti recipe. You can enter information during your life that you want your family to find when you die or share information with family now.
Steve Byrne, co-founder of FinalRoadmap.com, says many of his clients are baby boomers who are struggling to figure out what their parents want. They don’t want to put their children into the same position. The sites drill down into much more detail than you would typically include in a will or an advance health care directive, down to what interventions you want and who you want in the room while you’re dying.
If you’re in an accident, for example, who has the power to make decisions for you? If you’ve given your sister that responsibility, how will your doctors know, and does she have a copy of the document?
“People say I don’t want to be a vegetable, but what does a vegetable mean?” Byrne says. “Our mission is to encourage people to think about, to document and share end-of-life wishes.”
Everplans and Final Roadmap are two among a number of sites that provide this type of service, including The DigitalBeyond.com, PlannedDeparture.com, AfterSteps.com and PrincipledHeart.com.
All sites encourage you to discuss end-of-life issues with your family, record your wishes and then make it easy for family members to find them when they’re needed. “What we try to do is not only have a place for everything, but guide them through those questions,” Byrne says. “There are people still years after they’ve made decisions wondering if they did the right thing because it was just a guess.”
You can designate whom you wish to see specific information and whether you want to share it now or not until after you’ve passed.
“I try to make this as easy as possible for people to have this all in one place,” says Byrne, who founded the site with his wife, Kerry Shannon, a health care consultant. “We want people to do this while they’re healthy, while they still have the faculties. … We try to tell people this is not about dying, this is about planning ahead.”
The sites provide places to upload wills, trusts, health care directives, powers of attorney and even appraisals of valuable items you may own. You may also be asked to record the location of notarized and signed copies of documents and the contact information for your estate planning attorney.
Users can add all kinds of details, from records of their pets’ health, to family genealogy, to password for online accounts to instructions on how elements in the house work. “I guess you could call it a smart vault,” Schneiderman says.
Everplans charges $75 a year, while Final Roadmap charges a one-time fee of $249, with discounts for multiple users. The services also have options for sharing all the aspects of your digital life, from passwords to bank accounts to the message you want sent to your Twitter followers after you’re gone.
“I consider [digital estate planning] in this day and age traditional estate planning,” says Wendy Goffe, an estate lawyer who is a partner at Stoel Rives in Seattle. “Your digital life is a big part of your life. For some people, that’s the biggest part of your life.”
Goffe cautions that everyone’s situation is different and no online service can replace the advice of an experienced attorney who understands your situation. “You don’t know what you’re not getting,” she says. “A program only gives you what you ask for, and you’re not always asking the right things.” Your digital life may include valuable intellectual property, for example, which requires more planning than what to do with your Facebook status updates.
The other issues people need to be aware of with online repositories, she says, are security and what will happen to your documents if the company goes under. One option for customers might be to print out copies of everything they place online and let a family member know the location of those paper documents.
Here are seven factors to consider when doing your end-of-life planning:
Legal documents. Most people need a will and some would benefit from a trust. You probably also want to designate a health care surrogate and leave an advance health care directive. Exactly which documents you need may vary by state and situation, so consulting with an estate planning lawyer is advisable.
Digital legacy. What do you want to happen with your online accounts when you pass on, and how will your heirs find all the passwords? If you own intellectual property such as e-books, photos or other copyrighted material, you may want to consult an attorney.
Business future. If you own a business, what will happen to it when you die or are unable to run it? Would someone be able to find everything they need to run your business temporarily if you were in an accident? Once you die, does someone inherit the business or will it be shut down?
End-of-life wishes. A health care surrogate and an advance directive will cover your legal bases, but you may want to give your family, especially the person who will make decisions for you, more details about when you would like heroic measures taken and when you would prefer no interventions. Do you have specific ideas on who you would prefer to be with you and what you want the atmosphere to be when you’re dying?
Funeral plans. Do you want burial or cremation? Are there specific readings or songs you want at your service or people you would like to have speak? What do you want included in your obituary? How will your family know whom to contact with the information that you have passed?
Assets. If you died tomorrow, would your heirs be able to find all your assets? Is all your beneficiary information current on your retirement accounts and life insurance? Do you need to leave passwords to access accounts?
Day-to-day details. Will you heirs know how to pay the water bill, the mortgage and other home chores? If you rent, will they know how to contact your landlord? These items will need to be handled while your home is waiting to be sold or occupied by another family member.
Human fascination with immortality stretches back to the time of Greek mythology with history littered by charlatans, oddballs and megalomaniacs either claiming or seeking the secret to eternal life.
However, the modern tech-savvy generation has discovered, quite by chance, that an immortality of sorts is now freely available via the digital footprint they leave should they meet an untimely end. It’s estimated that on Facebook alone, more than 30 million accounts belong to people who are deceased.
As if the pain of coping with the death of a loved one isn’t difficult enough, friends and family must now consider the implications of the deceased’s online life to go with their material existence.
Your online footprint
Think for a moment about your own digital presence. You’ll almost certainly use online banking and shopping facilities, perhaps an online wallet like PayPal, email accounts, a frequent flyer program, a social media presence via Facebook or Twitter, along with potentially thousands of personal files, receipts and photographs.
Most people already understand the importance of estate planning to help pass on worldly goods such as housing, savings and mementos to their beneficiaries. But how will your heirs even gain access to your computer and your passwords?
Like so many laws relating to the digital world, many are outdated or irrelevant, and several online services have already established their own policies. For instance, Twitter allows family or friends to download a copy of your public tweets and close your account. You need to nominate someone in advance to provide their name and contact details, their relationship to you, your Twitter username and a link to or copy of your obituary.
No laws currently exist in Australia to grant a Will’s executor automatic access to someone’s social media accounts. However, there are still several options available to help decide on how your online legacy is managed.
The first step is to create a Digital Will. In addition, you will need to select a trustworthy digital executor to handle arrangements for your digital assets and digital legacy once you are gone. Similarly, if you run your own business, it will have its own digital incarnation and its own digital legacy to maintain. Some Australian Will makers offer Digital Wills so people can ensure their online legacy lives on – or fades away – in accordance with their wishes.
Online vaults for safe storage
An increasingly popular alternative is to store important documents and passwords in an online vault. The likes of SecureSafe, Legacy Lockboxor Assets in Order pledge to provide secure online storage of passwords and documents.
Password management accounts can be set up using software such as Norton Identity Safe while Google recently introduced a new program called Inactive Account Manager, which enables you to choose in advance exactly what you wish to have done with all your Google data – from Gmail accounts to YouTube videos.
Considering how much of our communication takes place online these days, it’s worth investing some time thinking about your digital footprint and what is required to manage it when you’re gone. A good time to do this might be when next reviewing your Wills and Powers of Attorney. With a little thought and preparation, you can leave a lasting legacy to your loved ones, well beyond photos or videos, and avoid complications associated with your ‘digital immortality’.