Watch the TV news and every night you'll see the growing tally of coronavirus cases -- and the increasing number of people who have died from it.
Attorneys are seeing a growing interest in people who want to draft or update their wills. And online sites that help people with those documents are seeing a boost in interest as well.
"COVID is a wake up call," said Renee Fry, CEO of Gentreo, an online-estate planning platform. "People are saying they don't know what the future holds but they want to be prepared."
Some don't want to even think about creating or updating a will because it makes them realize that there's no guarantee on how long anyone has to live.
But many are facing their mortality, and planning for the future, as more than 1.3 million cases and more than 78,000 deaths -- including more than 1,000 Texans -- have been tied to coroanvirus in the United States.
Fort Worth attorney Lisa Jamieson said she's had more people than normal ask in recent months about creating or updating wills.
Some say they've talked about it for a while and finally want to move forward; others ask how quickly the legal documents can be created.
"Everybody is more concerned about getting it done now," said Jamieson, an attorney with Bourland, Wall & Wenzel in Fort Worth. "They want them and they want to get them done now, just in case something happens."
Who needs a will?
Many attorneys also make sure other documents -- such as powers of attorney, directives to physicians, medical powers of attorney and designation of guardians -- are done at the same time as a will.
"If you die without a will, then it's a lot more expensive to go through probate," Jamieson said.
Not only that, but without a will, guardianship of a person's children might not go the way he or she intended. Not to mention if the person who dies is in a second or third marriage, and doesn't have a will stipulating what goes to the surviving spouse, children from the different marriages could end up getting everything.
"To be clear, no one should be updating their wills solely due to the pandemic," said Anna Barker, a personal finance expert and founder of Oregon-based LogicalDollar, a website that helps people manage and invest money. "At the same time, it provides a good opportunity to do so, especially if this is something you haven't considered before or in some time.
"While the pandemic may be an uncomfortable reminder that we never know what's around the corner, things can also happen to you in non-pandemic times."
Online or in person?
For Do It Yourself people, there are templates online on sites such as LegalTemplates.net that can help people craft their documents. Between Jan. 21 and the first week of April, there was a 176% increase in traffic to the site's last will and testament template page, said Mollie Moric, a legal analyst and staff writer for the site.
At the same time, Gentreo, another site for DIY will writers, has seen a 223% increase this year in people joining the website to make wills, health care proxies and other legal documents. The number of Texans registering on the site in February, March and April was seven times as large as those who joined in February, Fry said. These wills can cost about $130 with coupons.
"Estate planning used to be something people thought was only for older adults or the very wealthy, but now most understand this is for everyone no matter what the age," Fry said.
Legal fees for those who choose to work with an attorney to draw up their will can be thousands of dollars, depending on how complicated the will is.
For those who choose to hire an attorney, much of the discussion about what should be in a will and who the beneficiaries are can be done on the phone in these days of social distancing.
Documents such as powers of attorney need to be notarized, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott suspended some statutes that let people appear before a notary public by videoconference. So some of these documents can be finalized in "virtual" signings.
"These temporary suspensions provide flexibility in the notarization process for certain documents and ensure Texans are able to stay home as much as possible to protect themselves and others from this virus," Abbott said.
But wills need to be signed in front of witnesses, which means the last step to finalize those documents may need to be done in person.
In the worst case scenario, where you need a will but can't go online or have the time to talk to an attorney, you can make a handwritten will.
If you do, make it short, such as leaving everything to your spouse or to your children. And the entire document must be written by hand and signed.
"If you sign it, there doesn't have to be witnesses or a notary," Jamieson said. "It's a little more difficult to probate, but it's not as bad as dying without a will."
Many people are reluctant to have wills drawn up.
And COVID-19 makes some people feel vulnerable and unable to control their own life and destiny.
"When this potentially deadly illness is around us, it makes us anxious about our deaths," said Cathy Cox, an associate psychology professor at TCU.
But drawing up a will does two things.
It lets people reach out to loved ones to talk about what they want to happen at the end of their lives and it makes them feel as though they've done everything they can to help loved ones.
"It can be comforting to them to make sure their friends and loved ones are taken care of," Cox said. "There's not any more uncertainty."
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