Many of our clients are in the midst of settling the estate of a deceased loved one or have just had a loved one pass away and are wondering what comes next. An event such as this has both personal and legal consequences. Below are observations on issues that may immediately present themselves.
- Immediate steps may be limited by circumstance. If someone has just died and the cause of death is unknown, public health officials may limit the immediate steps one would usually take until the cause of death is determined and no known COVID-19 risk exists. Depending on circumstances, there may be some delay in physically getting access to the premises, securing them and searching for a will and other documents if they are not in possession of the family or the decedent’s attorney. It is always wiser to have one’s original estate planning documents safely secured off the premises and make sure a trusted individual has access to the storage place.
- Once access is permitted, secure the premises if they become unoccupied. Subject to the necessary steps to ensure everyone’s safety (which may include disinfecting) the nominated personal representative may take steps, such as changing locks, necessary to secure the physical contents and financial documents which may remain in the home. These steps can be taken before one’s official appointment. If additional or condominium fees must be paid to allow enough time for an orderly inspection, appraisal, or the like, this can be treated as an expense of the estate.
- The legal process of estate administration can begin and continue. While the probate courts of the states in which we conduct estate administrations have limited or closed off physical access to the public, emergency hearings (conducted telephonically) continue and many routine documents can be e-filed. Routine non-contested wills can still be allowed; while reduced staffing at courts may stretch the time frames somewhat, these processes, at least for the present, continue as before. Where that time frame may cause harm to a beneficiary or in some cases, the assets, if the court deems such circumstances an emergency, a hearing to rush the appointment of a temporary fiduciary, called a “special personal representative,” can be requested.
- Most financial activities can be conducted. With overnight shipping, and technologies such as scanning, secure e-mail, electronic funds transfers, and electronic document signatures, most financial transactions can be conducted virtually once the identities of the parties are established in a fashion compliant with the financial institution’s practices. Thus assets can be transferred to estate or trust accounts, sold and reinvested if desired in order to properly pay estate expenses and distribute funds to beneficiaries. Notarizations still require physical presence although there is a move afoot to accept signatures performed over a videoconference.
- Once appointed, electronic communications are vital. As a fiduciary, personal representatives and trustees must take special care to maintain transparency and good chains of communication with each other and the beneficiaries. In a typical administration, one or more introductory or status meetings may occur between co-fiduciaries and the attorney, some with beneficiaries present. Since these will not occur during this unprecedented time, most communication should be in writing. Email has become the standard, often with multiple co-recipients.
As we collectively weather the spread of COVID-19, Burns & Levinson LLP will strive to keep our estate and trust administration clients updated with changes that affect these areas of critical personal and financial importance to families and businesses alike.
About the Author: Clifford Cohen
Cliff Cohen is Chairman of Burns & Levinson’s Trusts & Estates Group. He has over twenty-five years experience in estate planning, trust law, and estate administration. He advises individuals, couples, and families in structuring their assets during their lives and for their beneficiaries. He also advises fiduciaries on the administration of estates and trusts as well as beneficiaries as to their rights. Cliff has experience planning and administering estates with complex assets, distribution schemes, and tax issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617.345.3286.