When COVID-19 upended the estate planning business, everyone in the industry needed to find ways to adapt. Attorneys and clients alike had to navigate remote court appearances and communicating by video conferencing, all while dealing with the disruption to their own lives.
The severity of COVID-19 also made clients more aware of their mortality, prompting them to get Special Needs Trusts and other planning vehicles in place.
Over the last several months, Los Angeles-based Elder Law attorney Stuart D. Zimring has faced his share of challenges. But he’s also discovered a few unexpected silver linings—some of which he hopes will endure long after the pandemic is behind us.
True Link Financial asked Mr. Zimring to share some of the lessons he’s learned so far. His answers below have been edited for length.
1) A pandemic brings urgency to estate planning
You don’t want something as stressful as a pandemic to be what pushes people to get their affairs in order. But it’s forced us all to realize how tenuous life can be. I’ve noticed that many clients are thinking more about what could happen to loved ones in the event of their death, and they want to be proactive about making sure they have protections in place. This is especially the case for people who have an adult son or daughter with a disability.
I tell people “Don’t hesitate. Get your affairs in order and stay safe.” It’s a good time to learn more about how to take advantage of the SECURE Act to direct an Inherited IRA to a Special Needs Trust and double-check your beneficiary designations. This new legislation impacts how unearned income of children is taxed and how IRAs can be distributed over a lifetime.
2) You need to get creative in notarizing
When stay-at-home orders became widespread in March, many states put emergency measures in place that allowed remote online notarization to minimize physical contact. Unfortunately, California was not one of them. We give our clients a list of traveling notaries who practice social distancing and suggest businesses like FedEx, UPS, or PostNet that offer these services. We’ve also implemented “drive-through” signing where clients can come to our parking garage and stay in their cars while we notarize documents and hand them back in a sealed package.
3) Clients may want to consider Holographic Wills in the short-term
Getting Wills properly executed is difficult since virtually every State requires at least 2 witnesses along with the classic formalities of execution (e.g. being in the same room, etc.). Since California permits Holographic Wills, we’ve been able to create a workaround. We give the client the language of a simple Pour Over Will and instruct them to take a blank piece of paper, write this language out in their own handwriting, date it, and sign it. We’re keeping track of all clients who do this and once the safer-at-home orders are lifted, we’ll bring them into the office to sign formal, attested Wills. Obviously, this is only an option in States that permit Holographic Wills.
4) Clients are embracing virtual meetings
I’m not seeing anyone in person at this point, so Zoom is my regular way of communicating with clients. I love being able to chat with people in Israel and Hong Kong at the same time. I also appreciate how it’s improved communication with my clients. I learn so much more about them when we're able to see each other; understanding their facial expressions can be especially important when parents are talking about a child with special needs.
I’ve been impressed by how easily my senior clients have adapted to this new technology. It helps that many people were already talking to their grandkids using FaceTime or Google Hangouts, so the transition to Zoom wasn’t too difficult.
For people who are new to video conferencing, I prep them in advance. I say, “I’m sending you an email. In that email is going to be a link to Zoom.” That way, they’re ready to sign in, and we usually can start meetings on time with few glitches.
5) You need to be mindful of protecting client-attorney privilege in virtual meetings
During a Zoom meeting, you can’t see who is in earshot of your client, potentially jeopardizing their confidentiality, or who might be off-screen prompting or influencing them.
To address these issues, we’ve applied the same rules as if we were including a friend or family member in a real-life client meeting. When I set up a meeting with a potential client, my office sends out a pre-meeting letter with the Zoom link and conflict-of-interest waiver, which I insist on having signed before the meeting starts.
If a third party wanders on-screen while the meeting is in progress, I pause and ask the client if they want them there and then explain attorney-client privilege just as I would if someone had unexpectedly entered the office.
6) It’s critical to have the right technology
There’s nothing like a bad Zoom connection to motivate you to get your internet technology up to speed. With teams working remotely across California and Nevada, I’m in the middle of upgrading our servers and software. I’m also cautious about letting any client send financial documentation or Social Security numbers while we’re on a video conference line, since it's important to be vigilant about the security of personally identifiable information. Instead, if they want to pay by credit card, I have them call the office.
I know this sounds old school, but we’ve also rediscovered the fax machine. It offers a secure connection, and I’m able to use my old machine at home in addition to e-fax solutions.
Working virtually has been a challenge for all of us, but I’m proud of how resilient my staff and clients have been. We’ve managed to stay connected and get this important work done. Still, I know we’re all looking forward to the day we can meet in person again.
Stuart D. Zimring is lead counsel at the Law Offices of Stuart D. Zimring and a member of the California Bar Association with decades of experience in the areas of Elder Law, Special Needs Trusts, and Estate & Life Planning. A frequent speaker and author on these topics, he is also an Adjunct Professor at Stetson University College of Law.