News about the coronavirus is everywhere, and we have all been affected by it in some way, even if we are currently completely healthy. Although it may seem as though circumstances are spinning beyond our control, we are not powerless. There are steps we can take to protect ourselves and our families, both physically and financially.
First, we can exercise caution in our interactions with others to ensure their health as well as our own, taking care to stay the recommended distance away from others, especially those who are more susceptible to illness, and washing our hands to avoid spreading germs. COVID-19 is a dangerous virus for some people, but the good news is that a large majority of people have not been infected, and most of those who have become ill are recovering fully.
Constant news reports about the COVID-19 virus have brought the wellbeing of ourselves and our families into a sharper focus, highlighting the importance of planning for the unexpected. A second concrete step you can take to ensure the welfare of your family is to pull out your estate planning documents and take a close look to verify that they still reflect your wishes and are able to accomplish your goals.
As you review your documents, ask yourself a few important questions:
Would your last will and testament and/or revocable living trust still achieve your goals? In your will, you have specified how you want your money and property distributed to the beneficiaries you have chosen. In addition, if you have children, you probably named a guardian in your will to care for them if you cannot, and perhaps you even specified a caretaker for your pet. In your revocable living trust, you likely named a trusted person to be your co-trustee or successor trustee to step in to manage the money and property held in the trust even during your lifetime if you are unable to do it yourself. In addition, you specified how the money and property in the trust should be distributed to beneficiaries you have named in the trust document once you pass away.
Life is constantly changing, so it is important to review not only the people you have named as beneficiaries, but also to consider whether the people you named to act as your executor or trustee are still your top choices. Even if you are still comfortable with your previous choices, are the individuals you selected currently available to act in those roles? Is the person you chose to be the guardian of your children still available and willing to care for them? If several years have passed since you drafted your documents, your executor or trustee may have moved away or may otherwise be unwilling or unable to serve. In the current crisis, the person you have selected may be unavailable due to illness, quarantine, or a stay-at-home order, and if he or she lives out of state, may be subject to travel restrictions.
Are you still comfortable with the people you have named to be your agents under your financial power of attorney? In your durable financial power of attorney, you designated an individual to make financial and property decisions for you should you become unable to manage your own affairs. As mentioned above, because of the prevalence of stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, and self-quarantines, make sure the person you have chosen is currently available to act as your agent. Consider designating individuals you trust but who also live close by to act in these roles. Consider also if you have young adult children who might need medical and financial powers of attorney.
Does your advance health care directive, the legal document that appoints a person to make medical decisions for you when you are too ill to speak for yourself and spells out your wishes concerning end-of-life care, still accurately reflect your wishes, for example, whether you would like to receive life support if you are in a permanent vegetative state or have a terminal condition? Make sure family members have a copy of it or know where it can easily be found to ensure that they will not have to guess about what you would want if you become very ill and are unable to communicate your wishes.
Do you need to modify or update the beneficiary designations of your retirement accounts and insurance policies? The SECURE Act, which went into effect January 1, 2020, is the most impactful legislation affecting retirement accounts in decades: The SECURE Act requires most designated beneficiaries to withdraw the entire balance of an inherited retirement account within ten years of the account owner's death. Depending on the value of your retirement accounts, we may have addressed the distribution of your accounts in your RLT. Because of the new change in the law, we may need to modify some of your trust provisions for any proceeds of retirement accounts to be distributed to your RLT that meet your estate planning objectives. If you have already named beneficiaries, now is the time to make any changes that are necessary to reflect your current wishes.
Do you have a list of legal, financial, and medical professionals who have performed or are still performing services for you, and if you do, is this list up to date? The list should include their contact information so your family can easily reach them in the event their help is needed if you become ill or pass away. In addition, ensure HIPAA authorizations are in place with medical professionals to ensure your family members are able to obtain needed information.
Do you have a current list of all your accounts and important documents? The list should include bank and investment accounts, titles to vehicles and homes, credit card accounts or loans, digital accounts (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter) and passwords, Social Security cards, passports, and birth certificates, which may be needed to manage your property if you become ill, or to settle your estate if you pass away.
If you have these documents in place, you are well prepared! If your estate plan needs updating or if you don't have an estate plan, this is something you can do today to prepare for the future. We have put procedures in place aimed at safeguarding your health during the current health crisis and are happy to meet with you over the phone or via a videoconference. Our primary goal is to help you have peace of mind about the future—regardless of the circumstances. Eventually, this crisis will be over (and that day can't come too soon!), but right now, we want you to know that we are still here for you: Please give us a call to take action to ensure the best plan is in place to provide for your care and for your family.