Estate Planning in the COVID Era

Why is now a crucial time to discuss estate planning?

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest public health and economic crisis I’ve dealt with in my 23 years of practice. With one COVID-19 death every 80 seconds in the U.S., we all are conscious of our mortality. Estate planning should be a priority for each person – younger or older, single or coupled, wealthy or of limited means. Challenging as it is to face decisions around disability and death, the peace of mind that comes from knowing your intentions are spelled out is undeniable.

Although the current economic collapse has left many struggling, it’s all the more critical to make decisions now about distribution of even the smallest nest egg. For cash-strapped clients, I arrange a flexible payment plan as I believe most advisors do also. No one should go without legal documents because they can’t afford it.

An estate plan, once made, shouldn’t be shelved and forgotten. It should be revisited every three to five years because laws change, professionals retire, and perhaps you want to appoint different beneficiaries or decision-makers. Contact information and even surnames can change, yet it’s critical that the individuals you have designated remain easy to contact.

 

What trends are you seeing? Do you foresee long-term effects on the industry?

Even before the pandemic, I saw a big increase in clients requesting virtual meetings and remote document executions, owing more to their busy schedules and Miami’s ever-escalating traffic. This trend has exploded during lockdown and in some cases, has proven a more efficient way to work, which is why we expect some of these changes to become more permanent. Tech is evolving to accommodate this shift. Remote Online Notarization (RON) recently became effective in Florida for testamentary documents, for example. RON is a notarization process where signer and the notary public are not in each other’s physical presence but communicate concurrently using secure technology from specific RON providers.

There have been downsides to the new way of doing things: interacting all day through a computer screen can be exhausting. Also, we handle intimate and critical issues, and it can be challenging to not be able to do so face-to-face.  Either way, we work to ensure clients have a clear understanding of the documents they are signing.

One trend to avoid: It is best not to rely on proliferating online document assembly services.  Unfortunately, the reality of the economic collapse is that many cannot afford the competent legal services they deserve. But the web-based companies that offer low-cost estate plans often produce generic one-size-fits-all documents which may not be enforceable in Florida and could lead to costly, messy litigation.

 

Why do you steer clients toward The Miami Foundation?

People with charitable intent usually have specific beneficiary organizations in mind. Yet there’s no way to know whether those organizations will still exist, or maintain their missions, 10 or 20 years from now. That’s why I recommend leaving funds to a professional philanthropic organization like The Miami Foundation, which closely vets recipients and rigorously follows up, keeping their grantees accountable.

Performing due diligence is a huge responsibility. The Foundation not only susses out worthy grant applicants, it also leads by envisioning projects that will strengthen and improve Miami. These range from LGBTQ+ rights to transportation to creating open spaces to helping solve the crisis of homelessness to arts and culture and beyond. The Foundation’s sense of vision for our community ensures that each bequest will be spent thoughtfully and responsibly according to the donor’s intentions. In these uncertain times, we all should be thinking of the complex aspects that make up our community. Even a small amount will grow significantly, so I encourage the planning of generous, forward-thinking legacies today as a way to improve Miami’s future.

 

Elizabeth Schwartz, P.A. is a practicing lawyer, author and LGBT advocate.

Pictured: Elizabeth during a book discussion (Miami Herald)

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