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Probate & Estate Administration During COVID-19

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Probate Challenges and Estate Administration Roadblocks During COVID-19 Corona virus Pandemic

Many of our clients are in the midst of settling the estate of a deceased loved one or have just had a loved one pass away and are wondering what comes next. An event such as this has both personal and legal consequences. Below are observations on issues that may immediately present themselves.

Immediate steps may be limited by circumstance. If someone has just died and the cause of death is unknown, public health officials may limit the immediate steps one would usually take until the cause of death is determined and no known COVID-19 risk exists. Depending on circumstances, there may be some delay in physically getting access to the premises, securing them and searching for a will and other documents if they are not in possession of the family or the decedent’s attorney. It is always wiser to have one’s original estate planning documents safely secured off the premises and make sure a trusted individual has access to the storage place.

Once access is permitted, secure the premises if they become unoccupied. Subject to the necessary steps to ensure everyone’s safety (which may include disinfecting) the nominated personal representative may take steps, such as changing locks, necessary to secure the physical contents and financial documents which may remain in the home. These steps can be taken before one’s official appointment. If additional or condominium fees must be paid to allow enough time for an orderly inspection, appraisal, or the like, this can be treated as an expense of the estate.

The legal process of estate administration can begin and continue. While the probate courts of the states in which we conduct estate administrations have limited or closed off physical access to the public, emergency hearings (conducted telephonically) continue and many routine documents can be e-filed. Routine non-contested wills can still be allowed; while reduced staffing at courts may stretch the time frames somewhat, these processes, at least for the present, continue as before. Where that time frame may cause harm to a beneficiary or in some cases, the assets, if the court deems such circumstances an emergency, a hearing to rush the appointment of a temporary fiduciary, called a “executor” or “special personal representative,” can be requested.

Most financial activities can be conducted. With overnight shipping, and technologies such as scanning, secure e-mail, electronic funds transfers, and electronic document signatures, most financial transactions can be conducted virtually once the identities of the parties are established in a fashion compliant with the financial institution’s practices. Thus assets can be transferred to estate or trust accounts, sold and reinvested if desired in order to properly pay estate expenses and distribute funds to beneficiaries. Notarizations still require physical presence although there is a move afoot to accept signatures performed over a videoconference.

Once appointed, electronic communications are vital. As a fiduciary, personal representatives and trustees must take special care to maintain transparency and good chains of communication with each other and the beneficiaries. In a typical administration, one or more introductory or status meetings may occur between co-fiduciaries and the attorney, some with beneficiaries present. Since these will not occur during this unprecedented time, most communication should be in writing. Email has become the standard, often with multiple co-recipients.

Need to speak to an attorney about issues your confronted with during the Pandemic, call our office 401-274-0300 for a no cost phone consultation.

Estate Planning and the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Uncategorized

Estate Planning Amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic has impacted every corner of the world at this point. As medical experts, financial advisors, and our colleagues that specialize in healthcare law, employment law, and other related areas are busy advising clients on the best course of action for the weeks and months ahead, we – as estate planners – also want to remind our clients and friends of some important considerations during these uncertain times.

At this point, we would simply promote the following actions to ensure that your estate planning affairs are in order:

(1) Review your existing documents. Make sure that you have copies (either paper or electronic) of your existing estate planning documents, and review them to confirm that they still reflect your wishes. If you cannot locate your documents, consider calling or emailing your estate planning attorney to obtain copies.

(2) Pinpoint any items that require attention sooner rather than later. As you review, take note of any major changes that may have occurred in your family since you last updated your estate plan. These might include child births, deaths, marriages, divorces, etc. And also consider whether the individuals that you previously appointed to serve as your agents are still appropriate.

(3) Follow up with your loved ones and advisors.

  • Make sure that your loved ones know to contact your estate planning attorney in the event anything should happen to you. This includes your named executor (i.e. personal representative under your will, or trustee of your trust), guardian for your minor children, attorney-in-fact under your financial durable power of attorney, and patient advocate under your health care power of attorney.
  • Consider reaching out to your financial advisor, insurance advisor, etc. to ensure that your beneficiary designations are up to date and discuss any new planning opportunities relative to your current financial status.
  • If you require any medical attention in the near future, confirm that your medical provider has a copy of your patient advocate designation and is informed as to who you wish to have access to your confidential health information.

NOTE – If you do not already have an estate plan, now is as good of a time as any to consider the opportunity before you. Having a will/trust, a durable general power of attorney, and a healthcare power of attorney can certainly contribute to a healthy state of mind.