By Tim Barkley. April 2020.
It was a little like a scene from a sci-fi movie when representatives of alien cultures meet to sign intergalactic treaties. But these were just garden-variety wills – yet signed under very unique circumstances.
They came in wearing gloves and masks. The documents to be executed had already been laid on the table. We respectfully backed away to the other side of the large conference table as obligatory but somewhat muffled pleasantries were exchanged.
The initial ceremonies completed, they signed and retreated. We circled the table, staying diametrically opposite them at all times. We witnessed their signatures, then had their signatures notarized. The documents were taken to “the back office” for copying and collating.
The documents were returned in a Tyvek envelope. They were instructed to handle the envelope with gloved hands until they could sanitize it, and to leave it sealed for two weeks, “unless something happens in the meantime.” Hopefully, nothing would, but there was reason to believe that at least some of the documents unfortunately might be needed sooner.
In the badinage across the conference table during the copying hiatus, we reflected on the ephemerality of life, and the real importance of people and relationships. They thanked us for not making them feel like “freaks.” We assured them that we felt privileged to serve them in this uncertain time, and wished them well. They departed.
Because wills and powers of attorney cannot be e-signed, this is becoming the (hopefully short-term) norm for signing these end-of-life documents. Other attorneys are passing signature pages through car windows and signing out-of-doors. There is even talk of drive-through will-signing lanes.
Telephone and online meetings are taking the place of in-person meetings, and email is replacing hand-delivery. Conversations on the telephone or online are still better than long, meandering emails, but less efficient and enjoyable than actually meeting in person. But they are safer.
While we’re on the subject, do you have a will? Financial and medical powers of attorney? Are they up-to-date? Do they need to be updated? This might be a good time to contact your planning professional and start that process.
Can you find them? If you were suddenly hospitalized, would your loved ones be able to find them? This is a good time to let them know where to look and what they will find there. If you are worried about people overstepping their bounds, remember two things: first, only name people you trust to respect you – if you can’t trust the people you’ve named, you need to name other people; and second, it’s pointless to wait until you are in the hospital to find out you can’t trust people but can’t do anything to stop them.
This is a good time to update your lists: what end-of-life documents you have signed, where they are, who is nominated to serve; where your assets are deployed and how to contact asset custodians (banks, brokers, benefits departments, etc.); and who important professionals are (doctor, accountant, lawyer, insurance agent). It might be a good time to give a copy of these lists to your fiduciaries (executor, agent).
Are accounts owned correctly? Are your beneficiary designations for insurance, retirement savings and brokerage accounts up-to-date? This is a good time to check and update as needed.
The unfortunate times in which we find ourselves have had the salutary effect of helping us focus on what is essential – people, relationships (even as we observe “social distancing” and stay in touch by virtual means); and what is important – planning for our uncertain future. The “tyranny of the urgent” has given way to a more sanguine outlook. Our presumed (presumptuous?) immortality, invulnerability and impregnability have yielded to a realization of life and its fragility.
Before we (hopefully) resume “normal life,” let’s make sure we have taken care of foundational things that will stand us in good stead whatever course our life takes.
Attorney Tim Barkley
The Tim Barkley Law Offices
One Park Avenue
P.O. Box 1136
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