COVID-19 Through the Lens of An Estate Planning Attorney

Apr 12, 2020

For more than a decade I have helped clients with their estate plans. Things are different now.

Previously, a potential client reached out to me wanting to talk about wills or trusts. I would explain that an estate plan is so much more than just the will. It’s taking a big picture look to make sure that things are in place no matter what happens – making sure the client’s wishes are followed and things are as easy as can be for their loved ones. Almost all of these initial conversations would include the phrase “I’ve been meaning to do this for years” or “I know I really should have a will.” We would identify information that needs to be gathered and a few things to think about before we moved on to a planning session.

While some would move quickly to that planning session, most would take some time – a couple months or even a couple years.

At the planning session we dig deep into the client’s wishes. It’s not just about who they want to receive assets and who they trust to handle the estate. It’s not just about what happens upon death, but also what happens if the client is incapacitated. First we identify all the people they trust to take care of things for them and all the people they wish to leave their estate to. We discuss backup options and select a first, second, and third choice for everything. Often we joke about a “zombie apocalypse” and think about who should receive the estate if all the people they really want to leave it to are gone. For parents of minor children we talk about not only who would raise the children in case both parents have died, but also who can step in quickly to care for the children temporarily if the parents are unable to do so.

And then we talk about the Health Care Directives and end of life planning. What type of medical care does the client wish to receive? If the end is imminent, what should be done? When it comes to funeral arrangements, what does the client want? These conversations can be difficult, but putting things in order can provide comfort to grieving loved ones who know they are doing what the client wanted. While these decisions are all so personal, there are common themes throughout:

  • I want my family there with me.
  • Give my loved ones a chance to say goodbye before you let me go.
  • I want a traditional catholic funeral and burial service.
  • Throw a big party to celebrate my life with all of my friends and family.
In over twelve years of practice never once have I had a client say I want to die alone. Never once has a client requested there be no gathering of any sort in their honor.

But that is the current reality for families around the world. As this novel coronavirus spreads across the globe, visitors are no longer allowed in hospitals and gatherings (including funerals) are no longer being held. It’s not just the COVID-19 patients dying alone, it is everyone. Grieving families are left in the wake; unable to gather, have a funeral, or share a comforting hug. In cities hit hard by the coronavirus funeral homes are overwhelmed. Bodies are sitting and waiting for days before they can be handled.

This is not what anyone wants for themselves or their loved ones.

The end of life wishes are not the only thing changed by COVID-19. This highly contagious virus is spreading like wildfire through families. If the parents get sick, will those guardians still be willing and able to care for the kids? While three choices for an agent used to feel like more than enough, now it may not be.

What once was a joke about the zombie apocalypse may become a reality for some families.

As schools closed and stay at home orders issued I retreated into my home anticipating a slow down with work. Instead the phone calls and emails increased. Estate planning was no longer something to do when we get around to it, it was something we need to do right now. The delay between initial conversation to planning session has disappeared.

Never before have I seen such a sense of urgency when it comes to estate planning.

Here in Minnesota it might seem to some that we are safe. Stay at home orders are working. We have yet to see the hundreds or thousands of deaths crippling places like New York, Louisiana, or Michigan. But for many watching the news or working the front lines, we don’t feel safe. We see it coming. We rush to complete those estate plans. We settle into the isolating world of social distance. We do whatever we can to keep ourselves and our families safe.

We hold on to hope that some day far in the future when death or incapacity does come, our wishes can be followed.

We hope that the people we want to handle things will be there to do so and that the people we want to leave our possessions are still here to receive them. We pray that nobody we love will have to die alone in the hospital and that all of these beautiful funeral plans can someday be used, complete with family and friends and comforting hugs. This is estate planning in the time of COVID-19.