It’s possible no two words impacted our way of life in 2020 more than “social distancing.” They made us more familiar with other terms like essential business and remote work, requiring us all to sometimes learn new ways to complete what used to be familiar tasks.
Estate planning is one of those things that saw an overhaul due to COVID-19’s social distancing requirements. More than 50 percent of Americans 55 years and older didn’t have a will or other key estate planning documents, and the new flood of people moving to do so in response to a global pandemic were met with a bit of irony: only 23 states allowed remote witnessing and notarization prior to the pandemic.1
So in response to 2021’s pandemic-fueled challenges, here are five things you can do to master estate planning this year without leaving your home.
- Know Estate Planning Basics
- Designate Beneficiaries and Assets
- Name Agents, Executors & More
- Write or Update Your Will
- Use Remote Notarization
- Video: Estate Planning at Home
What is the difference between a will and a trust? When do I need a power of attorney? And which power of attorney will best serve my family and me right now or in the future?
Estate planning is often not as simple as writing a will. It is a web of legal documents, titles, and steps that can be used for various reasons.
For example, a will gathers the property a person owns and can be used to designate how that property will be distributed once they have died. A trust, on the other hand, governs all the property it’s been funded with, including things like insurance policies or even investment profits.2
Real estate, cash wealth, investments such as stocks and bonds, and even personal, sentimental property such as cars, artwork, jewelry, furniture, or family heirlooms are all tangible assets that make up your personal estate. And if you die without collecting these assets in something like a will, you are not guaranteed they will be passed onto the specific people you want.
Simply organizing your estate and taking stock of what you own is a major step in estate planning. Beyond that, you should take stock of the loved ones in your life whom you want to pass your estate on to. Children and spouses are obvious, but maybe you want a sibling to take over a certain title in the family business, for example.
Much of this inventory can be done on your own, but enlisting the help of an attorney to review your estate or even just survey the assets you should include can be valuable. And this kind of consulting can be done remotely through services like Legalshield, for example — a very 2021-appropriate service.
For more on beneficiaries and why they’re so important, look here.
Just as important as the property you wish to pass on to loved ones are the people you choose to manage them.
A will or a trust will require an executor — the person responsible for carrying out your wishes when the document is put into action. A trustee is another title designated to the person tasked with managing a trust. Depending on the type of power of attorney you create, you may act as your own agent or designate a trusted individual to act on your behalf should you become incapacitated.
You do not need an attorney in order to write a will.3 Once you have stock of your estate and all the people you wish to include in the inheritance of it — from who will execute the estate to who will inherit its property — you are free to draft up your wishes accordingly on your own.
It’s important to note that writing your will and ensuring its legality can be mutually exclusive factors. Take into account that a former spouse or even your children may be able to contest your will if there are any questions concerning its validity.
Common contentions against the validity of wills include: it wasn’t properly witnessed, you weren’t fully competent when you signed it, or even the possibility of fraud.3
Each year, more than 1 billion documents are notarized in the United States.4 This, of course, is an integral part of ensuring your estate planning is recognized legally and typically requires in-person witnessing.
In response to COVID-19, many states amended their emergency remote notarization and remote witnessing orders. It’s important to keep up to date with the regulations in your specific state, as laws vary throughout the country and are subject to change in response to COVID-19.
In several states, for example, notarization of a trust is only required when transferring real property.5
Research the specific remote notarization laws and requirements in your home state — be it a comprehensive list of the existing notarization laws or a timeline of how and when states amended laws to enable remote notarization — and take advantage of services like Notarize.com. The process typically consists of a notary assisting you via a video call, walking through security steps, and e-signing important documents.