The coronavirus pandemic has everyone thinking more about death: Do you have a will?
Thinking about what will happen to your worldly possessions after you die certainly isn't a happy task. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, death and dying has become an inescapable reality for many.
Although it may seem intimidating, having a will in place for loved ones to follow after you're gone is important. And attorneys in the region have seen an increase in clients wanting to do just that.
Nancy Meyers, treasurer of the Franklin County Bar Association and attorney at Salzmann Hughes P.C., has been practicing for 25 years, 15 of those in estate planning.
In Pennsylvania, wills aren't filed with the state until someone dies, according to Meyers. At the start of the pandemic, she said people weren't coming in to draft wills, but that changed as the lockdown stretched on.
"I think everybody thought it was going to be short-lived and continued to put it off, but now I would say from the summer and early fall through the present day, there's definitely been an uptick," she said. "I would say more of the uptick are people that maybe already had a very old will, and decided to take a look at it and realized it doesn't do what they needed to do anymore - that maybe they drafted it when their kids were small and now they have grandchildren."
The first thing people want to think about is making a good list of what exactly they have, how it is titled, whether it is owned jointly or alone, as well as the ballpark value of those items. Debts should be recorded, and beneficiaries should be designated.
"Know what you have, know what you owe, and know where you want it to go," Meyers put it simply. "Then, I would say, start calling some attorneys to get some prices. A lot of people are surprised - it's not as expensive as they think it is."
For most people, even a relatively complex will and a whole package of estate planning costs around $500, locally.
Meyers also suggested using internet resources sparingly.
"The other important thing is you want to know if your beneficiaries receive any sort of government benefits," she said. "That's the danger when people pull things off the internet because sometimes you could be setting your beneficiaries up for disaster."
If a person is receiving disability income, for example, it may not be in their interest to inherit, because it could disqualify them from benefits, Meyers explained.
"That's where you want to talk to an attorney that really understands that, and it can be set up that you can still give them a gift, but it just has to be done in the right way," she said.
Additionally, more people are thinking about powers of attorney. These are documents that allow people to name someone to make financial or medical decisions on their behalf. Each is a separate document.
"Frankly, they are really, for a lot of people, more important than a will because they determine what happens to you if you cannot manage your own affairs, even temporarily - it doesn't have to be permanent," Meyers said. "It's a document that allows the flexibility and continuity of management of your life."
Married couples, even if they own everything jointly, are not legally able to sign on behalf of the other person in Pennsylvania.
"Most people are pretty surprised to find that out," she said. "Pennsylvania does recognize the right of a spouse to make medical decisions on behalf of another spouse, but with financial decisions, it's very different."
Parents of adult children should also consider this process while their child is off at college, Meyers added.
"While the child is away at school, the parents can still do their banking and anything they might need to do," she said.
The entire process of preparing these documents can take a few weeks. Once completed, it is suggested that people keep their drafted wills in a secure, fireproof safe in the home, another copy in a safety deposit box and one with their attorney.
"A lot of attorneys - and I know with our firm - we do offer complimentary retention of the original will in our will safe," Meyers said.
Although the task may seem daunting, once completed, it's often a weight off of people's shoulders.
Pam Dolin Clark, 57, of Juniata County, started to reorganize and update her family's financial documents in May.
"(The Pandemic) just made me a little bit more aware of maybe I don't have as many days left as I think I do because nobody knows who's going to get this virus," she said. "It kind of scares you, and it made me get my financial house in order."
She created a "roadmap" for her executor in the event that something happens to herself and her husband.
"I went through all of our paperwork and have everything in files by year - the IRS says you're supposed to keep seven years of tax backup, so that's what I did," she said. "Then I have a spreadsheet that I have in our fire safety box, all of our investments, our birth certificates, burial plots and burial information."
Clark also recorded important information, such as passwords for online accounts.
"We have had a will, we didn't change it because of COVID, but we made sure that all of our financial information is up to date and easily findable," she said.
Recently retired from her job as an accountant and stuck at home from her volunteering commitments because of COVID-19, Clark got antsy.
"Over the course of 48 days, I organized the attic,' she said. "Then it was like, 'Okay, I have that in order, now it's time to tackle the paperwork.' So it took up parts of 22 days to get the roadmap started."
Clark also makes sure she backs up important documents on a flash drive.
"It pays to be organized," she said. "I could not imagine walking into somebody's house that had just passed and have to try to find all of the necessary documents that you need to close an estate. It was a lot of work, but hopefully, when we pass, somebody will appreciate the amount of work that was done."
For those interested in starting the process, the local Bar Association may be a good place to start. If finances are an issue, pro bono qualification may be an option.
Carley Bonk is a Watchdog Reporter for the USA Today Network - Pennsylvania. Her coverage spans across the southcentral region of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @carls_marie.