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Pandemic drives many to complete wills

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Kelly Palmer is on the front line of health care professionals most at risk of contracting COVID-19.

An independent contract nurse anesthetist, part of her job is to insert breathing tubes in patients, some for high-risk surgeries.

“The virus lives in patients’ airways, and you potentially disrupt it and expose yourself,” Palmer says. “Many anesthesia providers in other countries have become critically ill, and they think it’s because they’re exposed to a higher viral load than the general public, who might contract it in a grocery store.”

At age 35, in good health, not married and with no children, she never thought about drafting a will or doing estate planning – that is, until the current pandemic left her with a “sense of urgency,” says Palmer, who has hired an attorney and begun the process.

“I’m self-employed, I have a business, a home and a retirement account, and I wanted to make sure all of that wouldn’t end up in probate court in case something happened to me, and that my family wouldn’t have to deal with the headache of figuring all of that out on top of grieving,” Palmer says.

Likewise, just the threat, the looming possibility, that Albuquerque resident Siri Nyrop could contract COVID-19 was enough to persuade her to seek an attorney to update her will and estate plans, something she’d been neglecting for many years.

“I am in that vulnerable demographic, having had lung cancer and approaching my 69th birthday,” she says. “It’s not like cancer, where your doctor might give you six months or more to live. The speed with which the coronavirus can kill adds real urgency to getting your affairs in order.”

Legal business is up

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Erin Wideman

Albuquerque attorneys, like those around the nation, are reporting a noticeable uptick in the number of people who are scrambling to make, update or finalize last wills and estate plans, and they attribute it to concerns about COVID-19.

“I had one person specifically say to me, ‘I’ve been meaning to do this for years, and it took a pandemic to get me going,’ ” says Erin Wideman, managing partner at Pregenzer, Baysinger, Wideman & Sale in Albuquerque. “I have a lot of clients who we’ve been working with, and they have just sort of been sitting on drafts of their estate planning documents, and they’re calling in, saying, ‘I’m ready; let’s get this done now.’ ”

Of course, people can go to LegalZoom and any number of online programs, but the forms are fairly generic, not necessarily tied to New Mexico law and may not include a review by an attorney, Wideman says.

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Vincent M. Haslam

And unless a lawyer is involved, “there’s a possibility that people may wind up sitting on the documents, as well as risking that what they’ve drafted may not reflect their wishes appropriately and legally.”

Vincent Haslam, an attorney with the law firm of Hurley, Toevs, Styles, Hamblin & Panter, also in Albuquerque, says the pandemic “brought people to the realization that their affairs might not be in order.” And it forced them to ask some hard questions: “What happens to my stuff if I die, and, probably more importantly, who takes care of me if I’m incapacitated? Who makes health care and financial decisions?”

Old and new wills

Ernest, who asked that only his first name be used, was also motivated by the outbreak to take action. The 60-year-old started a family later in life and now shares custody of his two sons, ages 12 and 17, with his ex-wife.

“I don’t want my kids, especially the 12-year-old, to suddenly find out that their dad is drafting end-of-life documents, particularly since I’ve not yet had a chance to talk with them about it,” he says.

Ernest says he is aware not only of how dangerous the virus is for people his age and older, but also how it can unpredictably affect anybody of any age.

He and his former wife had wills, and after divorcing eight years ago, Ernest says, he started drafting a new will, power of attorney and health care directive. He only recently reached out to an attorney to complete it, motivated, he says, by the immediacy of the virus.

Of course, that sense of immediacy and urgency doesn’t make it any easier for lawyers to quickly provide those services, given the restrictions and protocols for isolation and social distancing.

Creative approaches

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Laurie A. Hedrich

Laurie Hedrich, of Hedrich Law, says she’s had to be creative, particularly regarding the signing of wills, which in New Mexico requires two witnesses.

“I have people coming to my house and signing documents in their car in the driveway while I corral two of my family members to watch,” she says.

While much of her work can be done remotely over the internet, it doesn’t much help clients who either don’t have access to the internet or, in the case of many older clients, “they’re not comfortable with it,” requiring her to resort to the more time-consuming process of exchanging documents through the mail.

For estate planning, there is no requirement that an attorney meet in person with a client, “but I have found an in-person meeting is much more effective than a teleconference or something similar,” says Haslam, who is currently working from home.

“With new … clients, I might do phone consultations to get the process started in terms of collecting information, identifying goals and determining what the client is really interested in protecting,” he said.

However, he also informs those clients that in the absence of an emergency, such as a medical condition that makes them extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, “that we are not going to be able to finalize the estate plan without having an in-person meeting.”

Tricky timing

It is then up to clients to determine whether they want to wait until social distancing restrictions have been lifted or go ahead with an in-person meeting, “and we’ll institute social distancing protocols in my office,” he says.

At Wideman’s firm, staff attorneys are currently not seeing clients in the office, “but our phones are being answered remotely, and our staff is talking to clients, as well as emailing and doing telephone and videoconferencing,” she says.

Another complication is getting documents notarized.

The governor addressed that issue with an executive order approving notarization by video.

“We send the documents to the clients in advance of the videoconference, and once we get the videoconference online and confirm that we know the client, we watch them sign the documents in the presence of two witnesses they provide,” Wideman says.

The clients then place the items in a return envelope and send them back, at which point any attorney or staff member, all of whom are notaries, can officially notarize them.”

If the bad news is that COVID-19 is creating a sense of unease and urgency, the good news, Wideman says, is that it’s also forcing people “to act to protect themselves and their families and ensure that their wishes and desires are in place.”

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