Coronavirus leads to surge in wills: 'Everyone is thinking about their mortality'

"Everyone is saying, I should probably get a will done just in case."

April 2, 2020, 5:10 AM

Earlier this week, Tara Waters made her will.

She's just 42 years old and the mother of two young children.

But amid the climate of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the nation, she, like people of many ages and walks of life, is grappling with the difficult subject and not taking any chances.

"Obviously with the coronavirus, everyone is kind of susceptible to it," Waters, a police officer from Weymouth, Massachusetts, told ABC News.

"I feel like in this day and age everyone is kind of thinking about their mortality," she added. "I think people are seeing for the first time they are very vulnerable everybody is."

The coronavirus has spread rapidly in the U.S. and led to a skyrocketing demand for wills, even for those who aren't senior citizens. What once appeared to be a scourge that was primarily affecting the elderly and those with underlying health issues has now been revealed to hospitalize and kill those who are younger, seemingly at an alarming rate.

"I'm not loaded, I don't have a fortune for people to fight over, but I have two small kids," Waters said. "I definitely want to make sure that if something happens to my husband or I, our wishes are put down in legal form."

She said in speaking to different police officers and other first responders, "Everyone is saying, I should probably get a will done just in case."

A person fills out a document to create a will.
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Marked increase

Renee Fry, the CEO of Gentreo, an online estate-planning platform, told ABC News that they saw a 143% increase week-over-week in people creating wills with them last week, and she predicts it will be an event larger uptick this week, estimating it's "probably closer 220%."

"In the past, people thought this was only for the wealthy, it's not," she said.

Fry emphasized that her service is legally-binding and state-specific, which is something you need to be especially cognizant of if you choose an online service.

"There might be things online, but if it's not what your state requires, then you don't have the documents you need to hold up in court," she said. "Each state has a separate requirements."

Ann-Margaret Carozza, an estate planning and asset protection attorney based in New York said in recent weeks she's seen an approximately 50% increase in inquiries about "all estate planning aspects."

"I've had a lot of calls and email questions about doing healthcare-advanced directives," she said. "This pandemic is causing us all to think about or it ... who we are naming to make healthcare decisions for us in the event that we are unable to speak."

"The calls about healthcare proxies were so great that I just put the PDF-downloadable form on my website," she added. "It's good in all 50 states, it does not have to be notarized."

In addition to healthcare proxies (giving someone the power to make medical decisions on your behalf in the event you are unable) and wills, Carozza said clients have been reaching out to create all sorts of often-overlooked legal documents amid the pandemic.

"There is one very interesting aspect to this and I think it may come from the very solitary nature of the most severe cases, where patients don't have interaction with family members at the end, that people are asking me for guidance on doing what I call ethical wills," she said. "A normal will simply distributes my property at my death, an ethical will is where someone can put forth words of wisdom for their family members and loved ones."

Carozza said she has also seen an uptick in inquiries for creating trusts.

"I feel like there is a general sense that parents want to make things easier and smoother for their children, and in many cases that might be doing a trust instead of a will," she said. "A trust takes effect immediately upon a parent's death and is really like a gift to the next generation in terms of simplicity."

There are several key differences between wills and trusts. Wills set forth how a person wishes to dispose of his or her property upon his or her death. Trusts, which can vary some what, hand the legal title for property to someone else -- they can be more flexible and have a wider range of uses, according to FindLaw, a provider of online legal information for consumers and small businesses.

Another key difference is that wills can face challenges in probate court, whereas a trust is not subject to probate.

'Critically important' for young parents

While in the past people may have thought wills were only for older, terminally ill or wealthy people, Carozza said it is "critically important" for parents of young children to make one.

"Especially when we have minor children, it's critically important to have a will to name guardians, otherwise it would be a court coming up with who they think would be in the best position to raise children," she said. "Anyone who has children should have a will done."

One of the most surprising aspects of the pandemic, Carozza added, is that it is making people rethink who they want to take care of their children.

"I've had calls where people have named siblings as guardians, but they don't like how cavalier people are taking the social distancing," she said.

While online will services have exploded in popularity in recent years, Carozza says she still discourages people from using them for the most part because of the "room for error."

"Yes, you can do an online will and you can do a will on a paper towel, and technically it's effective, but your family will be in court with that document," she said. "I would strongly encourage a person to do a will under the presence of an attorney."

"The probate laws of all 50 states state that a will executed under the supervision of an attorney is presumed to be legitimate," she added. "The do-it-yourself will will be in the probate court for twice as long."

'How fast can I get a will done?'

Drew Hall, a financial adviser in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has recently redirected his services amid the pandemic to focus on helping people get their wills in order.

Hall told ABC News that he received a surprise text a little over a week ago from a friend who was a doctor saying simply: "How fast can I get a will done?"

"I just went 'Oh man,'" Hall said. "For me it was like a lightning bolt hit. I have to do things differently for right now."

He said he then reached out to eight other people, including friends who work in the medical field, urging them to get their wills in order and not to wait until it's too late.

Currently he is working as a liaison between estate attorneys and his clients and friends to help them create wills, something he says he is not getting paid for.

Documents including Will, Power of Attorney, and Healthcare Proxy.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

But what about notarizing?

Hall said many people, however, are struggling to get their wills notarized due to government-mandated stay at home orders. He said he is currently calling in personal favors to notaries to get the wills authenticated as soon as possible.

In Louisiana and elsewhere, many attorneys have been in talks with local authorities to allow estate planning to be deemed an essential service amid the pandemic, according to Hall.

State representative Selene Colburn, of Vermont, tweeted that she is working on legislation that would allow "remote notarization processes for legal documents such as wills" amid the COVID-19 crisis.

A handful of states currently already allow remote online notarization, according to the National Notary Association.

Because of the "coronavirus emergency," and the many stay-at-home orders, more than a dozen states have authorized temporary remote notarization services with state-specific guidelines.

"Notaries in these states must follow any rules set by the governor or state commissioning officials for these emergency authorizations," the NNA states on its website.

Rules for each of the states can be found on the NNA's website.

ABC News' Kaylee Hartung contributed to this report.

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