NEW YORK—If you live in the United States and really want to be prepared for coronavirus, experts say you need a fully executed power of attorney, which designates a trusted person to take over your finances should you become incapacitated.
This is not something most people want to consider right now—or ever, for that matter.
“It always felt expensive, and it’s not fun to think about your mortality,” said Heidi Schoeneck, a 47-year-old divorced mom from Connecticut, who recently completed a will online and plans to heed the warning to get the rest of her paperwork done.
A financial power of attorney is the most useful document because of the possibility that you could be put out of commission for weeks if you fall ill and are unable to take care of your financial affairs. It is followed closely by health care directives, which express your wishes about medical care and who gets to make decisions for you, and a will, which distributes your assets after you die.
Estate lawyers have seen plenty of worst-case scenarios in normal times, when a person suddenly falls ill and their loved ones are left to scramble.
“You’d have to have the person declared incompetent, and that requires a judge. In the short-run, there’s nothing you could do,” said Michael Walsh, CEO of Cariloop, a service that helps families coordinate caregiving.
However, it is not enough just to prepare documents using online forms, if you do not properly execute them. While many Americans are under stay-at-home orders, there are ways to execute all of these legal documents remotely, at least in states now authorizing electronic notarizations.
Howard Krooks, past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, said new clients have been calling his Florida office during the last two weeks requesting help. Some lawyers are doing document signings in parking lots and in driveways, to maintain proper distance. The biggest challenge is trying to reach clients in senior facilities that are not allowing visitors, he said.
“Extreme times call for extreme measures,” Krooks said.
To find a lawyer, search online for a certified elder law attorney or someone with accreditation from the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC), Krooks said.
A full set of documents, with a will, power of attorney and advanced directives could run from $1,500 to $3,000. A single power of attorney should cost less.
You can also find free online help from services like FreeWill. Keep in mind that these are very generic forms and may not suit your specific needs, especially for complicated estates and guardianship issues.
FreeWill’s system will alert you if your circumstances exceed the capabilities of their documents, the company said.
For a simple power of attorney form, FreeWill co-founder Jenny Xia Spradling said it should take about 20 minutes. Depending on the rules of your state, you can execute the document with electronic notarization, or if you need two witnesses, you can ask neighbors with proper precautions.
More than 8,000 wills were completed online via FreeWill in the last month, with an increase of about 5 percent to 10 percent per week, the company said. The average user age is 57.
Krooks would like to see more younger people take estate planning seriously. In his family, as soon as anyone turns 18, he drags them to a notary and sets them up with power of attorney documents and health care directives.
Most married people hold assets jointly, but single people need to be able to designate someone legally to help them. “I’ve been preaching this my entire career,” Krooks said. “With the virus, it’s a lot easier to advocate.”
Schoeneck, a business consultant, heard that message, but she said she was less motivated by fear than by love.
“For me it was generous thing to do for my kid,” she said.
By Beth Pinsker