Estate Planning in a Coronavirus World: What Steps to Take Now?

The novel coronavirus, and its disease COVID-19, has led to over 700,000 infections over the course of three months, with experts forecasting that things are likely to get worse until they get better. With no clear timeline for a resolution in sight, public health officials, virologists, and epidemiologists are counting on 12 to 18 months of coronavirus crisis management before a vaccine is proven effective and safe enough to begin circulating around the world.

Within these troubling times, it’s very easy to lose hope. Despite a lower death rate than some of the other viral infections we have dealt with in the recent past, the disease’s death rate is far higher among the elderly and those with chronic conditions affecting the heart and/or lungs, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) (due to medication and other factors), organ transplants (immunosuppressant drugs), and history of heart disease and/or diabetes.

However, this is not a time to panic. It is a time to plan. A swift and measured response from public health officials and conscious withdrawal from non-essential social interaction can help quell the rise of the disease long enough to give our healthcare system the means to help those most in need until a vaccine can be developed. Nevertheless, it’s certainly a good time to be prepared for any and all outcomes, including the grimmest of all.


Essential Estate Planning Documents

In times such as these, the most important estate planning documents to have on hand are a health care proxy, HIPAA release form, and a living will. These are healthcare directives and documents that help your family and medical team guide your healthcare wishes accordingly, should you be incapacitated.

Health Proxy

A legal document that designates one other person (a proxy) as someone with the means to make healthcare decisions in your name about how you should be treated, if you cannot speak for yourself. In some states, this is a health care surrogate/durable medical power of attorney.

HIPAA Release Form

A legal document a patient must sign before their information can be shared with those outside the exceptions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. It may be necessary under certain contexts so your agent/proxy can disclose your information with a medically relevant third party. However, this does not mean it is always It’s important to discuss specifics with your attorney.

Living Will

A legal document that specifies how you wish to be treated given certain medical conditions. You may use a living will to state that you do not wish to be on life support, should the need arise. If you have a living will that precludes the use of respirators to save your life, it may be within your interest to amend this to ensure you are given the chance to be put on a ventilator should you contract coronavirus.

It’s important to temper panic with realism, and understand that while this disease is still spreading, and those after a certain age are more likely to struggle with complications than the young, the death rate is still currently low.

These essential estate planning documents are tools to prepare yourself and your family, should anything happen. This is not a call to all above a certain age to accept a dark fate. Instead, it is a call for rational planning in these crucial times, to prepare oneself and one’s family for the unthinkable.


Not Just a Concern for the Old

If you have elderly parents or grandparents, it is critical to remind them of these measures. These may be a little time-consuming, but they are important for their continued wellbeing. If they have previously written up similar documents, but more than ten years have passed, now’s a good time to revisit their documents. This will help to ensure that their present wishes therein are current and accurately reflect.

Estate planning tools may be used not only by the elderly, but by young families as well. For sole provider households, a basic estate plan to ensure that all owned assets are accurately distributed among loved ones may be prudent. Wills and trusts are ideal for this purpose. While the coronavirus affects the old more so than the young, the young are still affected.

Similarly, anyone with a chronic or compromising condition should be sure to check that these documents are current and prepared correctly – not through a simple DIY template, which may include clauses you do not necessarily agree to, but through a the hands of an estate planning professional who can craft healthcare directives that are tailored to your needs.

It’s best to have digital as well as hard copies of these documents. Digital copies can be printed and stored online, and accessed even through the phone, but hard copies make it easier to get through healthcare bureaucracy and demand immediate access to a loved one’s condition or pass through hospital admissions.


Coronavirus and Physical Contact

Traditionally, your agent or proxy would have to be present in order to make any medical decisions in your name. While quarantine measures and social distancing can be lifted when important medical decisions must be made, you do not need to endanger the life of your proxy or those he or she comes in contact with.

You can work with a lawyer to amend your documents in order to make it clear that you give your agent or proxy the authority to make decisions in your name over long-distance, through phone calls, video conferences, emails, or other available types of communication.


Property and Financial Considerations 

Life certainly goes on, even when you’re sick. Bestowing a durable power of attorney to someone not only for healthcare decisions but for financial ones as well gives them the ability to pay the bills and manage certain properties in your name.

You can also ensure that your property is passed on as per your wishes should you pass away by drafting a last will and testament. Or instead, if you wish to avoid the probate process or have a particularly large or complicated estate, you can use different types of trusts to more delicately handle your assets and properties.

Once again, the coronavirus outbreak is frightening and should urge many to call attention to their estate planning affairs – but it is no cause for panic, or undue worry. Follow the healthcare advice of your medical professionals and the CDC, practice simple precautions, care for your at-risk loved ones, and take these steps to ensure that should anything happen, you and your family is ready for the worst.


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