The world has profoundly changed since the outbreak of COVID-19, which has inevitably led others to think about how best to prepare for the future.
An estate plan can arrange for what happens to your belongings after you die; your will also helps determine who will take care of your underage children if you pass away before they become adults.
Your estate plan can also give instructions on your end-of-life medical decisions. If you already have an existing estate plan, now might be the time to ensure everything is up to date, and if you don’t, it might be an appropriate time to start.
A well-considered estate plan has never been more timely — though a global crisis shouldn’t be the only reason people think about what happens when they pass away.
Estate planning has become more relevant and necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Update your existing estate plan by reviewing all your chosen beneficiaries, executors, guardians, and trustees.
Use a living will and healthcare proxy to plan for your end-of-life medical care.
If you don’t have an estate plan, start by writing a will.
What happens to your stuff when you die?
When you pass away, everything that you owned — money, clothes, real estate — becomes part of your estate. If you haven’t planned for who receives these assets and belongings, such as by writing a will and naming a beneficiary, then the courts may ultimately decide what happens. The probate process will likely award assets to your closest blood-relatives first, even if they’re not people you have a relationship with.
How the coronavirus affects your estate plan
Coronavirus has made estate planning more relevant and necessary because of the long-term danger it poses to you and your loved ones. People who have already created an estate plan should take the proper steps to double-check all their documents and pay close attention to the designated beneficiaries. You can also use this estate planning checklist to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.
Creating an estate plan during the coronavirus
An estate plan can be as large and complex as you need it to be. Here are the essential documents to get you started.
Last will and testament
A last will and testament is one of the most simple yet effective parts of an estate plan. Use it to pass along your assets (even if you don’t have anything of high value), name a guardian for your minor children, and choose an executor who will carry its terms.
A will is an essential estate planning document and its creation doesn’t require a lawyer, although a lawyer can make sure it’s ironclad. In urgent circumstances, a handwritten will might even pass muster in your state. If you can’t get in touch with a lawyer because they’re self-quarantining or other circumstances related to the coronavirus, you can make a will using an online service or template.
People looking to update their wills can do so by making a codicil.
Another document to consider is a living will, also known as an advance directive. A living will stipulates in writing what kinds of care you should receive if you become incapacitated. The doctor must follow the text of the living will, including the "do not resuscitate" (DNR) provision if one exists.
Living wills have become especially important the pandemic as those who contract the coronavirus end up needing a ventilator. You can use a living will to specify when and how long you should be kept on certain medical equipment or treatment.
For more complex needs that won’t be satisfied by just a will, you can open a trust. This separate entity holds trust assets on your behalf and lets you put restrictions on how the assets can be used by the beneficiaries of your trust.
(A trust can also be the right choice for non-complex needs, such as if you don't want your heirs' inheritance to become public.)
If you have a revocable trust, you can update the trust document to reflect new beneficiaries, trustees, successor trustees, and investment strategy where applicable. (Here's our advice on investing during the coronavirus.) Coronavirus is a deadly disease, and should your trustee pass away it's important to have a backup trustee to take over the responsibilities.
Bank accounts and investment accounts
Many people don’t know that you can actually designate someone to receive the money in a checking or savings account, or the investments in a brokerage account. When you pass away, these payable-on-death accounts will transfer directly to your named beneficiary. You can usually fill out an online form with your bank or brokerage to make the accounts payable on death.
A life insurance policy is also payable-on-death. Make sure you’ve designated the property beneficiary.
Power of attorney forms
The power of attorney is a legal document that authorizes someone, called an agent, to act on your behalf. A financial power of attorney allows someone to make legal financial decisions on your behalf, while a medical power of attorney lets someone make health care decisions for you if you are incapacitated. (This is similar to a living will, except that a living will doesn't designate a person to make the choice, as your decisions are already spelled out in the living will.) After you pass away, the agent will no longer retain any authority of your estate.
Should you become incapacitated due to COVID-19, your agent with financial power of attorney can deposit checks and Social Security payments, and continue paying your mortgage so you're not delinquent or insurance premiums so they don't lapse.