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The upside of coronavirus: More people are getting their legal affairs in order

Some estate planning attorneys in the Tampa Bay area note a bump in business in recent weeks.

Charla Burchett has seen a lot during more than 30 years as an estate planning lawyer, but the coronavirus crisis has provided a few firsts.

She and two employees recently wheeled a cart out into the law firm’s parking lot with everything they needed to help a client sign legal documents passed through the car window. He didn’t want to come inside.

Charla Burchett, a board certified wills, trusts and estates lawyer. [Shutts & Bowen]

The three-person team has rolled out the cart a handful of other times in the past few weeks.

“We provide the service as best we can and where we can,” Burchett said with a chuckle. “Amazingly enough, that might be in a parking lot.”

Burchett’s drive-up arrangement is one of many changes she and other estate planning attorneys in the Tampa Bay area have made. Some have seen an influx of calls from potential clients. Others are hearing more from existing clients who want to update a will or change a power of attorney.

Many people find it easy to put off estate planning decisions. They don’t have a will when they know they should. They have undergone a major life change — a divorce or death in the family — but haven’t updated existing documents. The current crisis is pushing people into action.

Burchett, a partner at Shutts & Bowen in Sarasota and board certified in will, trusts and estates, suspects many older clients are stuck at home watching coronavirus news on TV. The grim updates have them contemplating their mortality.

“I think it’s making many of them pause and say, ‘I could be one of those numbers. Do I have my affairs in order, have I done everything the way I wanted it to be done?’” she said. “If they haven’t, they’re reaching out and saying, ‘I want to make a change. How quickly can we get this done?'”

Jon Skelton, an attorney with the Shumaker firm in Tampa, said some clients start the process but then disappear for a while. An event like the current crisis can motivate them to get back on track. His clients are generally looking to make updates to what he called the five core estate planning documents —wills, trusts, powers of attorney, health care surrogates and living wills.

Skelton hasn’t seen an increase in new clients, but his existing clients want to ensure loose ends are tied up. Some have underlying medical conditions and can’t risk leaving home. In those cases, Skelton’s firm can send the documents with a specific set of instructions, including who needs to be in the room when they sign.

“There’s definitely a push from clients who have paperwork in draft form or who were thinking things over to get them finished,” he said.

Jordan Lee, a partner with Shutts & Bowen in Tampa, has seen a “decent uptick” in new business. Some want documents quickly, but he encourages all his clients to take time to think about what he called “very personal decisions.” The process can be emotional as people decide who they want to help them through the end of their lives and how to distribute their estates, including treasured heirlooms.

“Sometimes they’re not ready to face a lot of those choices,” Lee said. “The process can’t be shortchanged.”

Before the crisis, Burchett spent some of her time at business meetings, luncheons and required continuing education seminars. Those events have been postponed, thanks to social distancing. Now she has a little more time to focus directly on clients, and the extra demand created by the crisis.

“That’s been one of the upsides,” she said.

Burchett and the other lawyers are using teleconferencing much more often. They have cut down on in-person meetings, though some estate planning documents must be signed in front of a notary and witnesses.

Burchett misses the human interaction. She enjoys sitting down with potential clients to hear their stories. It helps her build customized estate plans, not just off-the-shelf documents. Some of her clients have become close friends, and she knows their children and grandchildren. She thinks it will be more challenging to create those ties using electronic means.

“This crisis isn’t a forever thing,” she said. “I keep telling myself that.”

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